It was pitch-perfect political theater, the kind that politicians pay public relations firms millions of dollars to orchestrate: Preet Bharara, defying an order by the President of the United States, all but daring Trump to fire him. Even better, the whole thing was wrapped in confusion, playing out in conflicting reports that dropped late at night over the course of several days. And it ended when Bharara took to Twitter, Trump’s favorite medium, to grab control of the narrative.
“I did not resign,” he wrote. “Moments ago I was fired.”
“It was unbelievable how he played that,” said longtime political operative in New York and friend of Bharara’s said once it was over. “You couldn’t help but watch and think, ‘My god is he good at this.’”
And suddenly the question that has been whispered about in New York political circles for years was everywhere: What’s next for Preet?
A hard-charging US attorney beloved by the press and political reformers in both parties, Bharara has been rumored as a potential New York governor, or a mayor.The job he held for eight years is a singular one. Being the US attorney for the Southern District of New York is one of the highest-profile legal jobs in the country, one held by Rudy Giuliani, James Comey and Mary Jo White on their way to national prominence. All manner of bad actors, from Wall Street crooks to international terrorists to drug kingpins, come across the desk of the Southern District; Bharara had focused so much of his attention on political corruption, investigating both New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Resignation Could Prompt Run Against Cuomo or de Blasio,” declared the Daily News before it became clear that Bharara had been fired. A run against Governor Andrew Cuomo “would be irresistible political theater between two masters of strategy and the press” said New York Magazine, while a run against Mayor Bill de Blasio would allow Bharara to position himself “as the candidate who will drain the city’s swamp.”
Billionaire Republican Ken Langone told CNBC that it would be “wonderful” if Bharara ran for either office, while New York’s liberal public advocate Tish James was even less circumspect: “Run, Preet, Run” she tweeted at the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York after he announced that he had been fired.
The news this week that Bharara would take a job at New York University as a “distinguished scholar in residence” did nothing to tamp down the speculation: it’s precisely the kind of perch that lets a candidate-in-waiting wade in on public debates. Bharara himself announced the post on Twitter with a tantalizing “This is one way I plan to keep working hard on important issues I care about.”
There’s only one problem: According to more than a dozen former colleagues and longtime friends interviewed on and off the record, Preet isn’t running.
They describe a man clearly enjoying the spotlight, who doesn’t mind kicking Donald Trump in the shins when he gets the chance—but also someone who has never shown much interest in political office himself, and with two soon-to-be college age children is more likely looking to make money in a hurry. And even if Bharara wanted to run, it is not far from clear that the people who actually vote in New York have the same kind of enthusiasm that the political press has for Preet.
Though the firing drama played out as a PR coup, friends who were in touch with Bharara over that weekend say that rather than a carefully laying the breadcrumbs for the launch of a future campaign, he was at home in Westchester, trying like the rest of us to figure out what the hell was going on. (Bharara declined to comment for this story.) In their account, Bharara was prepared to resign along with the rest of the 45 US attorneys who were set to step down at the president’s request, even though he had been summoned to a meeting at Trump Tower in November and told that he would be kept on. Then the Thursday before he was fired, a Trump assistant called Bharara at his office; Bharara declined to take the call without knowing the subject matter, saying he need approval from his superiors first. He reached out to the office of attorney general Jeff Sessions—who two days earlier had concluded a conference call with Bharara and the rest of the sitting U.S. attorneys with go-get-’em “Happy Hunting!” send-off. Sessions’ office affirmed Bharara’s decision not to take the call, and Bharara called the White House to say he couldn’t speak to the president.
“He was genuinely confused,” said one friend, who, like others close to Bharara who were interviewed for this story asked not to be named in order to preserve a personal relationship.
Was that why the president called—because he was being asked to resign? Or was the president calling because he was going to be asked to stay? Was he supposed to submit his resignation only to have Trump reject it, since he had asked Bharara to stay on before?
“The whole thing was turning into a mini-crisis, but it was really just because Preet couldn’t get a straight answer out of anyone,” said a friend.
Bharara wanted to stay. “He wore his heart on his sleeve about this. He loved that job more anything,” said one former colleague. But when he couldn’t get a straight answer from the White House or the Justice Department about where he stood, and then news reports started leaking out that he was refusing to resign—which Bharara assumed were leaking from the White House—he grew angry. Then he became actually defiant. If Trump wanted a showdown, he was going to get a showdown.
“The guy is just tough as shit,” said one longtime friend. “He’s thinking, ‘I am the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. I am not going to be pushed around by Donald Trump or anybody else. I am going to see this thing all the way to the end, and guess what? I can tweet too.’”
This is not how a campaign launch would ideally have unfolded. Many people close to Bharara pointed out that if in fact he were on an eight-year grand plan to set himself up to run for higher office, the thing to do would have been to resign on schedule, at the end of Barack Obama’s second term. That’s how Rudy Giuliani did it, when he ran for mayor in 1989 after years of investigating New York City mayor Ed Koch from his perch as US attorney. No one would have given it a second thought if he left in January, and it would leave him even more time to raise money and set himself up for a run.
But Bharara has said, loudly and on the record, that he isn’t interested in politics. “I have no interest and desire to seek public office,” he told The Times in 2014. “Now or ever.” Last fall, he was asked by the local political newspaper City & State if he was willing to rule out ever running for office. “It seems really, really, really unlikely,” he replied. (Even when NYU announced the Bharara appointment, the school’s spokesman told reporters that the job “doesn’t preclude him from taking on other engagements” hint, hint.) His actual politics remain a mystery. Does he support a higher minimum wage? Higher taxes on the rich? Free college? The DREAM Act? No one knows, and yet pundits and progressive politicians are ready to draft him.
“Everyone wants a hero,” said one friend. “The concept that our crusading prosecutor runs for mayor, runs for governor, it’s tantalizing. He is obviously good at what he does. He is obviously smart, he’s great with the press. He has a great reputation”
But, this friend added, “Why would he want to sully himself with running for office?”
It is not hard to see where the Preet-as-political-savior idea comes from. A one-time aide to Chuck Schumer, Bharara had served as the nation’s most prominent US attorney for nearly eight years. In that time, he took on international arms traffickers, close associates of Osama bin Laden, insider traders, banks, hackers and street gangs. Most significantly, he took on the city and state’s entrenched culture of political corruption, sending the leaders of both houses of the legislature to prison and hounding both Cuomo and de Blasio.
He was on the cover of Time Magazine. “The Man Busting Wall Street,” read the headline. He was profiled in the New Yorker. Twice. Fortune followed suit. Buzzfeed called him “The Most Dangerous Man In American Politics.” (That said, he was dogged by the critique, especially on the left, that he’d given big banks a pass after the financial crisis: “When It Comes to Wall Street, Preet Bharara Is No Hero,” declared Pro Publica after he stepped down.)
And while most federal prosecutors are serious and straight-jawed Eliot Ness-types—think Patrick Fitzgerald, the Chicago prosecutor who brought down Scooter Libby and Rod Blagojevich—Bharara was funny and personable and self-deprecating. And he knew exactly what made him compelling: his story of the Indian immigrant who ends up in New Jersey as a child and makes his way to Harvard; his brother, the billionaire founder of Diapers.com; the son of a Sikh father and a Hindu mother, who married a woman with a Jewish mother and a Muslim father. “Even when my wife fasts for Yom Kippur, and my father-in-law fasts for Ramadan, I get to stuff my face with samosas all day,” he told Fortune. And The New York Times. And The Washington Post. And Time. (“I wish the media loved me like that,” sniffed one prominent New York City-based elected official when asked about Bharara.)
Which helps explain why the widespread assumption about Bharara was always that he must be setting himself up to run for something. Why else the cultivation of a slavish media? Why else the showman’s flair for the dramatic? Consider the time he waited to indict Shelly Silver, the decades-long Speaker of the Assembly, a sphinx-like figure who stood as permanent pillar of power over successive governments in Albany, until the day after Silver stood on stage with Cuomo at the annual State of the State address. Or after Bharara posted on Twitter that he had been fired, and then walked out of the US attorney’s office in lower Manhattan as bagpipes played and office staffers gathered behind barricades to cheer him on, a moment that was carried live by cable and local news networks.
What is all of this for, if not building political capital with voters?
“Preet was a little more open about himself and about the work,” said Daniel L. Stein, who spent a decade-long career in the Southern District, serving three chief prosecutors. “He encouraged attention, but it was because he believed in the value of the work. Before he became U.S. attorney there was this sense that the public wasn’t aware of the good work we were doing.”
And the all the media attention had another effect, career lawyers in the office say: It alerted the bad guys that they were on to them, and they had better knock it off before they ended up in Bharara’s crosshairs. Lawyers in the office were delighted, for example, when the son of Dean Skelos, the Senate majority leader and an only slightly less august figure than Silver, was caught on a wiretap complaining to his father about the culture of rectitude newly created in Albany.
“You can’t talk normally because it’s like fucking Preet Bharara is listening to every fucking phone call,” the younger Skelos said. “It’s just fucking frustrating.”
“It is,” his father intoned.
Former residents of Club Schumer fill the ranks of every level of politics and government in New York. Among those who spent time there, they say it isn’t difficult to spot the ones who think they will one day join the boss among the ranks of office-holders. Bharara was never one of them. The job he always wanted was the one he held for the past eight years.
“We live in strange times, and I don’t know if all the klieg lights are getting to him,” said one friend of over a decade. “But it’s really nothing he ever indicated he was much interested in, and nothing I’ve ever gotten the sense that he is much interested in.”
People who worked closely with Bharara blame the obsession with their former boss’s political ambitions on the limits of how the media thinks about power: That Bharara proved to be an adept student of Chuck Schumer’s brand of message management doesn’t mean he shares the same ambitions.
“He’s an achiever,” said one former aide. “He like doing things, and yeah, he likes accolades for getting things done, and whatever he does next, having a lot of good press is bound to help.”
A lot of that good press came from Bharara’s choice of targets: Why would he start hounding the mayor and the governor and a sizeable portion of the legislature unless he wanted to run things himself? Lawyers who worked on those cases, however, say that shows an historic amnesia about how those cases came together. They began with the kind of petty crimes that voters had almost become inured to. Bharara took down an upstate lawmaker for taking kickbacks on money he steered to two non-profits. Then he got a former city councilman for the same. Then another. Further wiretaps showed that two lawmakers and a high-powered lobbyist were unabashedly seeking campaign contributions in exchange for political favors. It was then that Bharara and his staff realized how far the whole culture of corruption went. The investigation that led to the indictment of a close aide of Andrew Cuomo was like any other investigation: start small, let people on the inside know you are interested in information, and then keep going up the food chain until you net bigger and bigger fish.
And as much as editorial boards and good government types think all this swamp-draining makes Bharara the perfect candidate, in truth, those who have actually run campaigns say that it more than likely disqualifies him from seeking office for the foreseeable future. To turn around and run against the very people he was investigating would look as if Bharara had spent years using the justice system to clear the way for his own political advancement.
“This is someone whose whole career is based on a kind of moral purity,” said one political operative close to de Blasio. “You turn around and run against the people you were investigating? I don’t see it.”
The dream of political reporters everywhere is that Bharara challenges Cuomo in 2018 in a battle royale for the ages, one that pits Cuomo, someone who bent Albany to his will with backroom deal-making against Preet, who seems to believe there is some impure inherent in the practice of politics. But for Bharara it wouldn’t just be morally suspect: It would be an awfully uphill climb. Cuomo remains unloved by political elites and the left, but he does already have $22 million on hand nearly two years before he is set to face the voters, and his poll numbers have remained relatively stable, even after Bharara busted his top aide late last year in an alleged bid-rigging scheme that netted the aide over $300,000 in payoffs. The dream of campaign against de Blasio is even less likely, especially since a few days after Bharara left his post the US Attorney’s office dropped the investigation. Petitioning to get on the ballot starts in June, and Bharara would have to move from his Westchester home and have residency in New York City by primary election day in September. It remains the dream of city and state Republicans that Bharara switch parties for his chance at higher office, but the mood of rank-and-file Republicans remains unfavorable towards the Schumer wing of the party, never mind the mood of the electorate as a whole in a Democratic state in the era of Trump.
The ideal scenario for those who want to see Bharara in office would be for Cuomo to decide not to see re-election, and then for Bharara to either seek that seat, or, more likely, run for attorney general if the current-holder of that office, Eric Schneiderman, runs for governor. But even a downballot race would be difficult. “We have literally no idea what this guy’s politics are,” said one prominent progressive. “He fights corruption, great. Where is he on The Dream Act? Where is he on criminal justice? Where is he on taxing the one percent?”
People close to Bharara describe him as a “Chuck Schumer Democrat,” which would put him somewhere on the center-left in a Democratic primary–not a good place to be in a state party where the organizing energy is among unions and activist groups like the Working Families Party. Even running for an open attorney general’s seat, Bharara would find himself vulnerable to someone more willing to do the bidding of entrenched interests.
That is a challenge that can be overcome, but Bharara’s recent history makes it more difficult. As much as his investigations of Cuomo and de Blasio endeared him to editorial boards, it didn’t to New York’s political regulars, many of whom view Bharara as an overzealous prosecutor trying to criminalize the practice of politics. (“You mean to tell me that people who make large campaign contributions can get meetings with the people they donate to?” sniffed one political insider. “I am shocked.”)
“He’ll get to go around and say, ‘I was the one who chopped off their heads,’ but a lot of people in politics think those politicians got a raw deal, and there but for the grace of God go I, and they are not going to be enthusiastic about supporting his candidacy,” said Norman Adler, a longtime Democratic consultant who worked the 1989 race when newly former US attorney Rudy Giuliani ran. “It’s the old Bobby Kennedy line–’Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.’”
Those who think Bharara can overcome these handicaps point to his rock-star level of political fame—though outside the political classes, it’s not clear just what level of rock star we’re talking about. One operative compared him to Colin Powell, circa 2000—a figure that the chattering classes are abuzz about but someone who has no real base of support. A Siena poll from last year found that only 23 percent of New Yorkers had a favorable opinion, while 12 percent had an unfavorable opinion and nearly two-thirds of voters had no opinion at all. A new Siena poll is slated to be out next month; the tumult with Trump is likely to improve his numbers slightly, but it’s still a long way from a groundswell.
“Is Preet really going to spend a year of his life going to town hall meetings, and union meetings and endorsement meetings,” said one prominent New York pol. “Do you really see him wearing green and kissing babies and marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade? Because I want him to run, but I just don’t see it.”
So what does Bharara do next? Money, and lots of it, is surely in his future, especially with two children approaching college age, a hyper-competitive streak and a brother who sold his start-up to Amazon for $545 million. His friends and associates say that they can’t see him going to work for a corporate law firm somewhere, but it’s not hard to imagine Bharara brought in as a fixer for various technology companies whenever they run into problems over hiring practices, or diversity, or skirting municipal regulations. Friends say they could see him returning to public life under a Democratic president, perhaps as F.B.I. director, or as attorney general. But it would take a president supremely secure in his or her past and position.
“Barack Obama could appoint him to U.S. attorney because Barack Obama didn’t have any skeletons in his closet,” said one former colleague. “The guy is relentless, though. Who would take the chance?”
So if Bharara really does have no desire for a political life, what was up with that scene on his office’s front steps the day he walked out? There were bagpipers, after all. Staffers lined up on the stairs, clapping as he made his way down. It was carried live by a local New York news station and by CNBC—exactly the kind of grand send-off that fuels speculation about what he has in mind next.
As it turns out, though, the “clap-out” is fairly common practice anytime someone leaves the US attorneys office. The bagpipers work at the courthouse as court security officers. They probably do something similar every two weeks or so, one lawyer in the office said. That the television cameras were there—well, that says more about the cameras than about Bharara.
“I think people were pretty emotional about him leaving. It has been such a shock,” said one longtime deputy. “That he gets to stick it to Trump a little bit on the way out the door is I am sure something he enjoys.”
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