Politics & Policy

Preening Preet Bharara

Preet Bharara (Reuters photo: Brendan McDermid)
It’s customary and constitutional for new presidents to replace U.S. attorneys -- and Preet Bharara knows that.

Preet Bharara, now former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, has never shied away from the theatrical. In 2015, while prosecuting former New York assemblyman Sheldon Silver for corruption, he was scolded by federal judge Valerie Caproni for orchestrating a “media blitz” around the case:

The U.S. attorney, while castigating politicians in Albany for playing fast and loose with the ethical rules that govern their conduct, strayed so close to the edge of the rules governing his own conduct that defendant Sheldon Silver has a nonfrivolous argument that he fell over the edge to the defendant’s prejudice.

Over the weekend, Bharara orchestrated a similarly sensational exit from his latest appointment. A few days ahead of a resignation request from the Department of Justice — part of the routine housecleaning of political appointees that accompanies every administration changeover — Bharara set up a “personal” Twitter account, writing portentously: “Stay tuned . . . ” Then, on Saturday, he tweeted: “I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired. Being the US Attorney in SDNY will forever be the greatest honor of my professional life.”

Leave it to a Manhattanite to be a drama queen.

The replacement of the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys is standard procedure when a president from a different party takes the White House. Bill Clinton asked for the resignation of all but one U.S. attorney in March 1993 (unlike, Bharara, they complied); George W. Bush had replaced nearly every U.S. attorney by the end of his first year in office; Barack Obama swapped out Bush-era U.S. attorneys for his own — among whom was Bharara. This is not a scandal. Since the executive branch is tasked with enforcing the laws, and since every administration has different (sometimes radically different) enforcement priorities, each administration wants lawyers who will carry out its priorities. (My colleague Andy McCarthy explained this in detail over the weekend.) The Constitution provides for this. And when an at-will employee refuses to give up his post, the White House obviously has no alternative but to can him.

Of course, this is not how Bharara presented his plight, and knee-jerk Trump critics have enthusiastically gobbled up his supposed martyrdom. MSNBC’s Joy Reid speculated that Bharara was fired because David Brock’s Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is suing the president on grounds that his business violate the Constitution’s emolument clause, had called on Bharara to investigate the group’s claims. Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren insinuated that Bharara was fired because he “had authority over Trump Tower.” Various Democratic nonprofits have suggested that Bharara was fired because he successfully prosecuted Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer with close ties to Vladimir Putin.

Trump did not provide a reason for demanding Bharara’s resignation, and he did not need to. This is something the president gets to do, because he is president.

In fact, Preet Bharara, like the 45 Obama-era U.S. attorneys subject to the Justice Department’s request, was fired because he served at the pleasure of the president. Donald Trump did not provide a reason for demanding Bharara’s resignation, and he did not need to. This is something the president gets to do, because he is president. There’s nothing else to it.

But there is an ongoing effort, on the part of Trump’s reflexive critics in office and in the media, to cast his every act as something discreditable or sinister and to portray every act of opposition as a display of high principle. It does not matter that Trump was exercising constitutional power precisely as his predecessors did. It does not matter that there was no principle at stake in Bharara’s refusal to resign. Donald Trump is bad, so everything he does must be bad, and anyone who opposes Donald Trump is standing up to tyranny. This is a comforting view for stupid people.

The New York Times lamented Bharara’s exit with the headline “Preet Bharara Shunned Politics. His End Was Tinged by Them.” But despite his past protests, Bharara’s ambition has never been much of a secret, and this weekend’s stunt is the sort of thing that will go over well as he tries to woo support for his next political foray, whatever and whenever that may be.

Of course, that he raised his profile by misrepresenting constitutional power and claiming for himself a victim status he didn’t earn should demonstrate just how “political” Preet Bharara really is.

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