Preet Bharara is not a man who goes quietly.
In his 7-year tenure as a U.S. Attorney, Mr. Bharara has earned a reputation for bipartisanship and, according to some accounts, fearlessness. Whether it was in the investigation of the campaign finances of Chuck Schumer, by whom he had been previously employed and who had recommended him for the position of U.S. Attorney, or his prosecution of JP Morgan and SAC Capital, he has cemented himself as a legal force in New York.
So, it showed some political savvy when then President-elect Trump asked Bharara to retain his post in the new administration at a meeting in Trump Tower last November.
However, all that changed last week when the Justice Department demanded the resignation of 46 U.S. Attorneys, Mr. Bharara included. When he refused to resign, he was dismissed. In a tweet from an account he started 8 days prior, Bharara said “I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired.”
The resulting media firestorm has produced many theories about the dismissal – most of which seem to skew towards the notion that Bharara was either about to begin investigating Trump or a close associate, or that he had already found something incriminating about the President’s former business activities.
Such claims are unfounded, and because I do not share the President’s fondness for spreading claims with no backing, I think it is fair to dismiss these out of hand. However, the fact remains that a man who was publicly promised his job has lost it, and by all accounts, that man was very good at said job.
Why? And what does this say about the current administration?
First, I’d like to dispel the notion that the action undertaken by the Justice Department in dismissing the U.S. Attorneys is in any way irregular. Sure, the Trump administration did initiate the call for resignation a little more abruptly than is customary (can we expect any less from the White House that rolled out the new Supreme Court Justice nomination like it was an episode of reality T.V.?), but there is ample precedent for the purge. In 1993, Attorney General Janet Reno demanded the resignation of all the U.S. Attorneys on the same day. Apparently, Jeff Sessions still has the letter she sent him.
In the current administration, 47 U.S. Attorneys stepped down voluntarily within the first month, and the call for resignation was an attempt to brush the slate clean. Mr. Bharara was the only U.S. Attorney to refuse resignation, and was summarily dismissed from his post.
One real issue with such an abrupt dismissal of Attorneys is that the transitional phase has been accelerated. Now slightly less than half of all federal districts are without an Attorney. A statement issued by the DoJ reads, “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."
While the rhetoric of that is very pretty, it’s a bit like firing every cabinet secretary and saying that those departments would continue to function just fine without a leader. In particular, the bit about violent offenders is worrisome because it hints at the kind of crime favored for prosecution by the Trump-Session Justice Department.
In his career as a U.S. Attorney, Mr. Bharara prosecuted predominantly corporate crime and government corruption, leading The New Yorker magazine to dub him the “Sheriff of Wall Street.” In the scope of a federal prosecutor’s responsibility, violent crime accounts for only a fraction of what they do. It should be cause for concern that under Attorney General Sessions there is a clear emphasis on the vote-getting tagline of violent crime above the promise to drain the swamp.
If you were really looking to drain a swamp – which, as I’ve written many times President Trump is not – then Preet Bharara is the kind of prosecutor you would want to keep around. His dismissal is further proof that the President has no intention of rooting out government corruption.
But you don’t need the conspiracy of Trump’s corruption to see why he wouldn’t want Bharara around. The president has, time and again, emphasized loyalty above any other virtue, a virtue about which I’m guessing he and Bharara would disagree on the definition. Bharara is exactly the kind of loose canon, prosecute-any-person-who-deserves-inquiry kind of attorney that could become a huge liability for an administration accused increasingly of election rigging and collaboration with Russia.
Preet Bharara was fired because he was inconvenient, and that matters.
For me, his dismissal matters in its symbolic value. Up until two weeks ago, very few Americans knew his name, and fewer still knew about his long track record. Imagine the work of the other 92 dismissed prosecutors which has gone unreported and unmourned, and what it represents to reject all these attorneys wholesale.
The fact that the Clinton administration did the same thing does not mean that either move was justified – what does it say about a government that is unwilling to collaborate with any of the legal infrastructure established by its predecessor? Is the law in America so fragile and partisan that only handpicked, party-line attorneys can be trusted?
If this is the case, then the lesson of Preet Bharara is clear. In America, who you vote for or donate to matters a lot more than whether you believe in liberty and justice for all.