President Donald Trump’s administration asked all remaining U.S. attorneys appointed by President Barack Obama to offer their resignations Friday, setting off confusion about the impact of the move and prompting warnings from Democrats that abrupt changes could undermine law enforcement.
“The Attorney General has now asked the remaining 46 presidentially appointed U.S. Attorneys to tender their resignations in order to ensure a uniform transition,” Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Flores said in a statement Friday. “Until the new U.S. Attorneys are confirmed, the dedicated career prosecutors in our U.S. Attorney’s Offices will continue the great work of the Department in investigating, prosecuting, and deterring the most violent offenders.”
However, Trump previously asked the Obama-appointed U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, to stay on. Bharara said publicly after their Trump Tower meeting in November that he had agreed to work for the new administration.
In addition, the Obama-appointed U.S. attorney in Alexandria, Va., Dana Boente, is currently serving as acting deputy attorney general, and Trump has nominated the Obama-appointed U.S. attorney for Maryland, Rod Rosenstein, for the deputy attorney general.
At least one prosecutor, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based U.S. Attorney Robert Capers, suggested he was told to Friday clear out by the end of the day.
“This afternoon, I was instructed to resign my position as United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, effective March 10, 2017,” Capers said in a statement. “It has been my greatest honor to serve my country, New York City and the people of this district for almost 14 years, with the last 17 months serving as United States Attorney.”
Capers said he was being replaced on an acting basis by a career deputy.
Flores declined to comment when asked whether all sitting U.S. attorneys were being asking to vacate their posts immediately. White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred comment back to the Justice Department.
A spokeswoman for Bharara had no immediate comment.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein of California, said she was “surprised” by the Trump administration’s move which she said was at odds with assurances she had received from the White House.
“In January, I met with Vice President Pence and White House Counsel Donald McGahn and asked specifically whether all U.S. attorneys would be fired at once. Mr. McGahn told me that the transition would be done in an orderly fashion to preserve continuity. Clearly this is not the case. I’m very concerned about the effect of this sudden and unexpected decision on federal law enforcement,” Feinstein said in a statement.
In past transitions, federal prosecutors appointed by a previous administration have often been asked to submit resignations, but those resignations were not always accepted. Even those that were accepted were often staggered for various reasons.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ request for the U.S. attorneys’ resignations comes as he is preparing to implement a series of significant policy shifts at the department, pushing for tougher prosecution of gun and drug offenses and parting company with the Obama administration’s embrace of more lenient sentences for some drug convicts.
The issue of removing U.S. attorneys at the change of administration has been a contentious one in past years.
In 2007, President George W. Bush’s administration sought to defend his firing of eight U.S. attorneys by asserting that President Bill Clinton had fired all sitting U.S. attorneys in 1993 “in one fell swoop,” as a top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales put it.
However, that was not entirely true. In both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the vast majority of U.S. attorneys were replaced in the first year, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2007. The Clinton team asked for resignation letters in March, but also allowed many prosecutors to stay until their successors were confirmed.
Trump has not yet formally nominated anyone to a U.S. attorney post.
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