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Trump Justice Department Tells Remaining U.S. Attorneys To Clean Out Their Desks

Department Of Justice Seal

Late Friday afternoon, the Trump Administration Justice Department sent letters to all forty-six of the remaining Obama Era United States Attorneys telling them that their services would no longer be necessary:

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration moved on Friday to sweep away most of the remaining vestiges of Obama administration prosecutors at the Justice Department, ordering 46 holdover United States attorneys to tender their resignations immediately — including Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan.

The firings were a surprise — especially for Mr. Bharara, who has a reputation for prosecuting public corruption cases and for investigating insider trading. In November, Mr. Bharara met with then President-elect Donald J. Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan and told reporters afterward that both Mr. Trump and Jeff Sessions, who is now the attorney general, had asked him about staying on, which the prosecutor said he expected to do.

But on Friday, Mr. Bharara was among federal prosecutors who received a call from Dana Boente, the acting deputy attorney general, instructing him to resign, according to a person familiar with the matter. As of Friday evening, though some of the prosecutors had publicly announced their resignations, Mr. Bharara had not. A spokesman for Mr. Bharara declined to comment.

Sarah Isgur Flores, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in an email that all remaining holdover United States attorneys had been asked to resign, leaving their deputy United States attorneys, who are career officials, in place in an acting capacity.

“As was the case in prior transitions, many of the United States Attorneys nominated by the previous administration already have left the Department of Justice,” she said in the email. “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.”

The abrupt order came after two weeks of increasing calls from Mr. Trump’s allies outside the government to oust appointees from President Barack Obama’s administration. Mr. Trump has been angered by a series of reports based on leaked information from a sprawling bureaucracy, as well as from his own West Wing.

Several officials said the firings had been planned before Friday.

But the calls from the acting deputy attorney general arose a day after Sean Hannity, the Fox News commentator who is a strong supporter of President Trump, said on his evening show that Mr. Trump needed to “purge” Obama holdovers from the federal government. Mr. Hannity portrayed them as “saboteurs” from the “deep state” who were leaking secrets to hurt Mr. Trump. It also came the same week that government watchdogs wrote to Mr. Bharara and urged him to investigate whether Mr. Trump had violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bars federal officials from taking payments from foreign governments.

In Mr. Hannity’s monologue, he highlighted the fact that the Clinton administration had told all 93 United States attorneys to resign soon after he took office in 1993, and that “nobody blinked an eye,” but he said it became a scandal when the George W. Bush administration fired several top prosecutors midway through his second term.

Several Democratic members of Congress said they only heard that the United States attorneys from their states were being immediately let go shortly before the Friday afternoon statement from the Justice Department. One senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect the identity of the United States attorney in that state, said that an Obama-appointed prosecutor had been instructed to vacate the office by the end of the day.

Although it was not clear whether all were given the same instructions, that United States attorney was not the only one told to clear out by the close of business. The abrupt nature of the dismissals distinguished Mr. Trump’s mass firing from Mr. Clinton’s, because the prosecutors in 1993 were not summarily told to clear out their offices.

Michael D. McKay, who was the United States attorney in Seattle under the George Bush administration, recalled that even though he had already made plans to leave, he nevertheless stayed on for about three weeks beyond a request by then-Attorney General Janet Reno for all of the holdover prosecutors to resign. He also recalled at least one colleague who was in the midst of a major investigation and was kept on to finish it.

“I’m confident it wasn’t on the same day,” he said, adding: “While there was a wholesale ‘Good to see you, thanks for your service, and now please leave,’ people were kept on on a case-by-case basis depending on the situation.”

Two United States attorneys survived the firings: Mr. Boente, the top prosecutor for the Eastern District of Virginia, who is serving as acting deputy attorney general, and Rod Rosenstein, the top prosecutor in Baltimore, whom Mr. Trump has nominated to be deputy attorney general.

“The president called Dana Boente and Rod Rosenstein tonight to inform them that he has declined to accept their resignation, and they will remain in their current positions,” said Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman.

It remains possible that Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions could put others on that list later.

There’s nothing either unusual or improper in the fact that the Trump Administration would seek to replace the United States Attorneys with their own appointees. The position is a political rather than civil service position, and Presidents and their Attorneys General typically seek to staff the 93 districts around the country that have a U.S. Attorney with people that they have confidence in rather than people who may have been more loyal to the previous Administration or to the President’s opponent in the General Election. Even if they aren’t explicitly political, the people who serve in these positions know that their jobs are dependent on the outcome of election and, no doubt, the fact that Donald Trump won the Presidency rather than Hillary Clinton was a signal to all of them that they could very well be asked to hand in their resignations at the very least. The fact that only 46 people were dismissed last night makes this point since it’s clear from that number that 45 of the 93 serving U.S. Attorneys had already moved on or handed in their resignations. As noted, the only two who are staying on for the moment are Dana Boente and Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. Attorneys for the Eastern District of Virginia and Maryland respectively, both of whom are filling temporary positions in the Justice Department in addition to their regular tasks. What is somewhat unusual is that the mass nature of the dismissal and the fact that it is apparently immediate for most if not all of the U.S. Attorneys on the list. Usually, the dismissals occur on a staggered basis or the incumbent is asked to stay until his successor is selected and confirmed by the Senate. This is especially true of the incumbent in question is currently in the middle of investigations that are considered a top priority so that the integrity and organization of the investigation isn’t compromised. This is what happened in 1993 when the Clinton Administration dismissed all 93 U.S. Attorneys not only after taking office. In reality, many of those attorneys ended up staying on for several months afterward until their successors were able to take office. In this case, that doesn’t seem to be happening, although there may be isolated cases other than Boente and Rosenstein where the White House decides not to accept a resignation or even reappoints the same U.S. Attorney to the position.

The one dismissal that seems to be surprising and even disappointing people on both sides of the political aisle is the fact that the list of people let go includes the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara. Formerly legal counsel to New York Senator Charles Schumer,  Bharara had been serving as U.S. Attorney for the area that covers much of New York City, including, perhaps most importantly, the borough of Manhattan since 2009 to acclaim from both sides of the political aisle. During that time, Bharara has earned a reputation as a relentless prosecutor on a wide variety of issues, but he’s earned most of his fame due to his concentration on political corruption in New York State Government. In recent years, he’s successfully prosecuted the top-serving Republican and Democrat in the New York State Legislature and has slowly been making his way through associates to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who have long been rumored to be tied into corrupt practices. Many have speculated that he was ultimately attempting to build a case against the Governor himself, although Bharara has of course been silent on that question. Additionally, Bharara has been rumored to be investigating the Clinton Foundation and its dealings while Hillary Clinton was serving as Secretary of State. He’s also been mentioned as a potential candidate for Mayor of New York in a challenge to the increasingly unpopular incumbent Bill DeBlasio, although Bharara has never really exhibited political ambition in the way that one of his predecessors as U.S. Attorney, one Rudy Giuliani.

As Jazz Shaw notes, letting Bharara go seems like a huge, unforced error:

Bharara has achieved deservedly legendary status in the law enforcement community and you can read the many remarkable stories of his exploits which have been covered here in the past. Replacing him would be a Herculean task in this era of political partisanship and cronyism. Donald Trump has spoken frequently and passionately, both on the campaign trail and in the early weeks of his presidency, about the need to “drain the swamp” in government and restore the trust of the voters and their elected leadership. When it comes to matters such as this, Preet Bharara is an industrial strength suction pump who could turn the Florida Everglades into a desert in under a day. He has no friends in the political establishment from either party. The most powerful elected leaders in the region absolutely dread the thought of hearing his footsteps approaching their office.

It’s worth reminding everyone at this juncture that Bharara was the man who took down the most powerful Democrat in New York State, Sheldon Silver, and followed that up with a conviction of New York’s top Republican, Dean Skelos. Both of those men currently face the prospect of very possibly dying behind bars. He currently has investigations underway into the affairs of the Clinton Foundation’s offices in New York City, the mayor of the Big Apple and the Governor himself. (He has already indicted several members of the Governor’s inner circle.)

(…)

Who will take up these daunting challenges if Preet Bharara is sent to the bench? I understand that there is some concern over the general attitude demonstrated by President Trump when it comes to walking back any decisions that he makes. A reversal of course might, in the minds of some of his advisers, be seen as an admission of error or a failure of some sort. That should not be the case here. This was a completely normal policy of sweeping out old political appointees when a new administration comes to town, and it could be readily explained that Bharara simply was caught up in that initial activity when the original intention was to exempt them him it. Conversely, taking a player like Bharara off the board now would send a signal of bowing to political pressure and protecting well-heeled bureaucrats who have been playing fast and loose with the taxpayers’ money and campaign funds.

Perhaps Bharara will ultimately be asked to say on or reappointed to his old position. Even if that seems like a reversal on Trump’s part, which is obviously contrary to his character, it seems like it would be a wise decision. While most of these U.S. Attorneys are easily replaceable, and those who have been dismissed will see their duties temporarily taken over by equally competent deputies, Bharara has been a one of a kind prosecutor who has done some important work and it would be unfortunate if all that goes for naught.

Update: The story didn’t end without a little drama. This morning it was announced that Bharara had refused to submit his letter of resignation so ,he was fired:

I’m honestly not sure what Bharara’s point was here. This was a fight he could not win.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    So who’s behind the Bharara firing? Bannon? Miller? Kushner?

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  2. JohnMcC says:

    This news made me curious about the ‘firing’ of 7 US Attorneys during the GWBush administration since the memories were dusted over. I’d recommend looking up a brief description; it was a very big Biden deal. It was this scandal that caused the resignation of AG Gonzales and of Karl Rove. The ‘lost e-mails’ of the GWBush administration were from this incident.

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  3. @CSK:

    According to the New York Times account, it seems as though Trump was spurred to act by what he saw on Sean Hannity’s show on Thursday night.

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  4. CSK says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    So in essence Sean Hannity directs policy. I had thought that Bannon did.

    Either way: Scary. Depressing.

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    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  5. JohnMcC says:

    Darnnit, forgot to toss this little bit into the comment above: The press in India (at least the Hindustan Times) points out that ‘Donald Trump Fires Indian-American Bharara, 45 Other US Attorneys’. (The wonders you turn up using search engines!)

    Seems like someone in the State Dep’t would have advised him about this. HaHaHaHa!

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  6. Mikey says:

    letting Bharara go seems like a huge, unforced error

    “Huge, unforced error” could be the Trump administration’s trademark.

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  7. Slugger says:

    I am probably being hopelessly naive, but I am uncomfortable about these type of moves by the executives of our government. The administration of the pursuit of justice should be nonpartisan in my mind. A prosecutors first loyalty ought to be to the law and not to the patron who employs them. How long has this been the way things are done? I should add that discussions about Supreme Court appointments make me anxious for the same reason; the whole idea that a Justice or a Prosecutor is a liberal/conservative or Dem/Repub seems a long way from being an impartial applier of the law. I don’t think that the idealistic founders of our country thought that the spirit of party should suffuse the judiciary. As I said I am probably simple minded in my thinking.

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  8. @CSK:

    At the very least there is an established correlation between reports on Fox and Donald’s Twitter rants, so there is that.

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  9. CSK says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    This is the perfect illustration of how easily Trump can be manipulated by a truly slavish-appearing courtier.

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  10. Dave Schuler says:

    The buried lede here is that the U. S. attorney’s submitting their resignations continues to be customary when a president of a different party assumes office. These U. S. attorneys are political appointees. The real story here is that they failed to submit their resignations back on January 20.

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  11. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    The firings were a surprise — especially for Mr. Bharara, who has a reputation for prosecuting public corruption cases and for investigating insider trading.

    Why would the current administration want to blunt such lines of investigation? Gee, I haven’t a clue.

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  12. Pylon says:

    No the lede is that Trump has no replacements. And the big picture is that, no matter what party is in power, it’s a bad system to replace prosecutors when administrations change.

    Perhaps one of you Americans can tell me, why ask for resignations versus just dismissing them?

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  13. Stormy Dragon says:

    Just a reminder, Preet Bharara is the guy who thinks part of his job is using the federal court system to punish people for internet comments, and then tried to censor journalists for reporting on it:

    DoJ’s Gag Order On Reason Has Been Lifted — But The Real Story Is More Outrageous Than We Thought

    Glad he’s getting the boot, because he should have been fired two years ago.

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  14. CSK says:

    He was just fired.

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  15. Smooth Jazz says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    “At the very least there is an established correlation between reports on Fox and Donald’s Twitter rants, so there is that.”

    So what? You far left Liberals need to get out more. Trump doesn’t need the imprimatur and approval of DailyKOS, CNN, NY Times and other paragons of the left wing ecosystem to remove political appointees, especially Obama/Schumer/Pelosi hacks such Bharara.

    I know, I know: The “Russians colluded with Trump to hack the election” has run its course so you far left blogs need lefty US Attorney was fired by Trump and Flynn does business with the Turks to be the next “Trump Should be Impeached” story line.

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  16. CSK says:

    @Smooth Jazz:

    The point, I think, is that Trump wouldn’t have done this if Hannity hadn’t told him to do it.

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  17. Moosebreath says:

    I tend to agree with Josh Marshall’s take on why this is different, and more innocent on first blush, than the 2006/7 US Attorney firings under Bush the Younger:

    “What makes last night’s actions at least odd and ill-conceived was its peremptoriness. After giving no guidance at all for a month in a half, Sessions insisted on immediate resignations from all 46 remaining US Attorneys. At a minimum that’s disruptive to the management of each office. It does nothing good for good government. Personally, having watched the administration so far, I would not rule out the matter being handled in this way for the specific reason of causing disruption and causing controversy. It’s clear that some amount of the roll out of original immigration executive order was designed to get people outraged and to drive protests. The problem was that it was so rushed and ill-conceived that the White House ended up getting beaten in the courts. Disruption on the White House’s own terms ended up blowing up in the President’s face.”

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  18. Barry says:

    @Pylon: “Perhaps one of you Americans can tell me, why ask for resignations versus just dismissing them?”

    They are lawyers, so it was considered more dignified that they would submit their resignations, rather than being fired like clerks or other peons.

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  19. Paul Hooson says:

    It smells of a form of obstructing justice by attempting to put out any potential fire early, that the Manhattan prosecutor could at some point form some form of prosecution threat because of Trump’s business affairs or his business associates.

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  20. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Pylon: To the limited degree to which I understand these things, the practice of offering a resignation 1) provides the new manager with the freedom to not accept the resignation without making a point of showing favoritism by terminating some and not others, and 2) removes the stigma of a termination showing up on a resume or CV.

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  21. Scott says:

    The prevailing animating motivation of anything Trump seems to be pure spite. Classless and incompetent.

    Remember: Trump is a classless pig and always will be.

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  22. Hal_10000 says:

    Many have speculated that he was ultimately attempting to build a case against the Governor himself, although Bharara has of course been silent on that question.

    Out of curiosity … is there a relationship between the Cuomo Family and Trump? Might one of the reasons Bharara was eventually let go be because Cuomo called Trump and said, “this dude is all over me”?

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  23. mannning says:

    Is it possible that some of the leaks and passing of sensitive information around DC that Trump has been fighting came from the office of the Obama AG? If so, the FBI may have localized some leaks to the AG Office, but could not definitively ID the culprits, hence the haste in firing the lot of Obama appointees (with two exceptions). This act may be extended soon to every department, simply to eradicate influences from the former administration. “Draining the swamp”, in Trump’s words.

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  24. teve tory says:

    So in essence Sean Hannity directs policy. I had thought that Bannon did.

    somebody said, “Fox news and breitbart are not the media arm of the GOP. The GOP is the legislative arm of fox news and breitbart.

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  25. teve tory says:

    one thing on the horizon gives me hope–if courts rule all the gerrymandering unconstitutional, it will change everything. check this out:

    Republicans captured the majority of the “popular vote” for the House on Election Day, collecting about 56.3 million votes while Democrats got about 53.2 million, according to USA TODAY calculations. With a few races still undecided, Republicans so far hold a 239-193 majority for the next Congress.

    the gop got 51% of the house vote, but 55% of the seats. In the senate and white house, the dems won the popular vote. without gerrymandering, the dems could get all three with a little luck. if that were to combine with an effort by fox to do a william f buckley and kick out the nutsos, the GOP could potentially reform.

    but the complete chaos of the trump situation might make all that academic.

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  26. teve tory says:

    @mannning: you’d probly be happier at InfoWars or GatewayPundit.

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  27. CSK says:

    @Hal_10000:

    Admittedly I didn’t do an exhaustive search, but Trump and Andrew Cuomo seem to have been at odds more often than not, especially since Trump decided to run for the presidency. They had a meeting sometime last fall. I don’t recall what it was about, but apparently it didn’t degenerate into a firefight.

    Bharara took down some of those close to Cuomo, and could be after Trump and his associates, so it’s possible, I suppose, to make a case that both men wanted him out of the picture.

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  28. Pylon says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker:

    I understand, in the ordinary course, the resume explanation for a resignation versus a firing. But in this case, where the ask was public, I’m not sure that applies. Plus, that whole problem is cured by having them under a limited term contract, which can be renewed if both parties want.

    Anyway, as I said, a stupid tradition that prevents consistency and causes a perception of bias.

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  29. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Dave Schuler: It’s up to the incoming administration to request their resignations. After all, the business of Federal justice must go on. What do you want to bet the Trump Administration hasn’t got candidates ready to go for these positions?

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  30. Just 'nutha ign'int cracker says:

    @Pylon: No objection to your conclusion; it’s spot on. In defense of the public nature of the terminations, the current office holders have had 45 days to get their duckies in a row. When I was working for the private school I worked at, it took me 2 days to get my letter of resignation posted to the new principal. The unusual and questionable thing here is the peremptoriness of the terminations. Terminated as of end of business at this level? Not so often.

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  31. Just 'nutha ign'int cracker says:

    “…and kick out the nutsos, the GOP could potentially reform.”

    Which presumes that the nutsos aren’t actually who the GOP is. I don’t see the GOP reforming; they are in the Maslow/Carl Rogers sense, congruent. What’s causing the problem is that YOU know who they are now, too.

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