© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara speaks at a Reuters Newsmaker event in New York.
By Andy Sullivan and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A prominent U.S. attorney said the Trump administration fired him on Saturday after he refused to resign, adding a jarring note to what is normally a routine change of top attorneys when a new president takes office.
The defiant departure of New York federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, first announced on Twitter, raised questions about President Donald Trump’s ability to fill top positions in his administration.
Trump has yet to present candidates to serve as the nation’s 93 district attorneys, even as his Justice Department asked the 46 who have not yet resigned to submit their resignations on Friday. Key positions in agencies like the Department of State and the Department of Defense also unfilled.
As a federal prosecutor for Manhattan and surrounding areas since 2009, Bharara secured insider trading deals from Wall Street companies and won criminal convictions in high-profile corruption and terrorism cases.
He told reporters in November that Trump had asked him to remain in his post and refused to resign when the Justice Department asked him to do so on Friday. He said he was fired on Saturday afternoon.
“Serving my country as a Federal Prosecutor here for the past seven years will forever be the greatest honor of my professional life, no matter what else I do or how long I live,” Bharara said in a press release.
The Justice Department confirmed that Bharara was no longer serving in the position and declined to comment further.
Like all US prosecutors, Bharara is a political appointee who can be replaced when a new president takes office. Past presidents have often asked outgoing US prosecutors to remain in office until their replacements obtain confirmation in the US Senate.
The Washington Post, citing two people close to Trump, said President Stephen Bannon’s adviser and Attorney General Jeff Sessions wanted a clean slate of federal prosecutors to assert the power of the administration.
But the decision to replace so many acting attorneys at once has raised questions about whether the Trump administration’s ability to enforce the nation’s laws would be hampered.
“President Trump’s abrupt and inexplicable decision to summarily dismiss more than 40 US attorneys has once again caused chaos in the federal government,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the layoffs showed that “the independence of the Justice Department is at risk under this administration” and that lawmakers had to carefully evaluate Trump replacements.
Career attorneys will continue that work until new American attorneys are established, the Justice Department said.
Bharara said his deputy, Joon Kim, will serve as his temporary replacement.
Marc Mukasey, a defense attorney whose father served as attorney general under Republican President George W. Bush, has been mentioned as a possible replacement. He did not respond to a request for comment.
HIGH PROFILE OFFICE
Bharara’s office handles some of the most critical business and criminal cases that pass through the federal court system. He’s been overseeing an investigation into New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s fundraiser.
Bharara has successfully prosecuted state and local politicians for corruption, including former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. He won a life sentence against Times Square (NYSE 🙂 attacker Faisal Shahzad and a 25-year sentence for international arms dealer Viktor Bout.
He won a $ 1.8 billion insider deal against SAC Capital Advisors, the largest ever, that forced the hedge fund to close, and forced JPMorgan Chase (NYSE 🙂 to pay $ 1.7 billion for settle charges related to his role in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi Scheme.
“His firing so early in President Trump’s term is somewhat unexpected, but if you had asked me a few months ago if I expected Preet to still be in that position in March, I would have said no,” said Matthew Schwartz, a former Bharara prosecutor.
Trump has asked two United States prosecutors to stay on the job, according to the Justice Department.
United States Attorney Rod Rosenstein of Maryland has been asked to remain in office while the Senate considers his nomination to serve as the No. 2 official of the Department of Justice, and has also been asked U.S. Attorney Dana Boente of Virginia, who is temporarily serving in that position, to remain.