There is nothing unusual about a newly elected president replacing all of the United States attorneys with his own personal appointments. These individuals are the nation’s most powerful federal prosecutors with the power to even investigate the president himself.
Bill Clinton, for instance, terminated all 93 sitting US attorneys when he assumed office.
What is unusual is telling or strongly implying that you are going to extend the term of a US attorney into the new administration and then arbitrarily demanding his resignation. That is what Preet Bharara, the camera-ready and highly charismatic US attorney for the Southern District of New York, claims that President Trump did to him, and Bharara is plenty angry about it.
The US attorney for the Southern District of New York occupies one of the most powerful seats of prosecutorial power in the United States, second only to that occupied by his nominal boss, the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions.
Even presidents and attorney generals tread lightly when dealing with the powerful Southern District prosecutor given its storied history as an institution of impeccable integrity. It is staffed by some of the nation’s most talented lawyers who have resigned from lucrative jobs at prestigious law firms to perform the public service of prosecuting the rich, powerful and politically connected in the media center of the United States and the world.
Bharara constantly generates headlines using a combination of charm and an ability to abandon legalese, speaking instead in quote-worthy soundbites to New York’s always headline-hungry press.
The last US attorney who maintained such a high profile in New York was Rudy Giuliani. He managed to trade in his prosecutorial fame for the title of mayor of the City of New York and later, after the 9/11 tragedy, to “America’s mayor.”
Prior occupants of the office have included Thomas Dewey, the former New York governor and presidential candidate; former New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and FBI Director James Comey, to name just a few.
Why the President would tell Bharara that he would like him to stay on and then pull the rug out from under him at first seems odd. But then we have to remember what happened to Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani. Standing on anything but wall to wall carpeting in the Trump administration is a obviously a dangerous tactic.
Trump may have become increasingly wary of Bharara’s close relationship with his mentor, US Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. Bharara served as counsel to the then-Senate minority leader and was rewarded with Schumer’s recommendation to President Obama that Bharara should be appointed to the coveted Southern District prosecutorial spot.
Bharara has a reputation as an aggressive prosecutor in political corruption cases regardless of the political party of the target. Close political aides to both New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio — both Democrats — have recently come under Bharara’s prosecutorial microscope.
The investigation of possible ties between members of the Trump campaign team and Russian officials, and the President’s claim that he was wiretapped in Trump Tower on orders of President Obama, will all lead back to the Southern District of New York.
In the end, President Trump has undoubtedly decided that he wants his own pick rather than the choice of Senate adversary Chuck Schumer in place as the top federal prosecutor in New York.
In terminating Bharara, though, the President has created a formidable and charismatic enemy who shares the President’s social media skills. Mr. Bharara has now become the first US attorney for the Southern District of New York to announce that he had been fired via Twitter. POTUS beware.