Manhattan federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, was fired Saturday after refusing to comply with the Trump administration’s request to resign, according to the New York Times.
Bharara’s firing adds another layer of controversy to the episode, which was already raising eyebrows—and in some cases, ire.
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.
— Preet Bharara (@PreetBharara) March 11, 2017
Embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked for the resignations of 46 U.S. attorneys on Friday, “igniting anger from officials who say they were given no warning about their dismissals,” as CNN reported.
“It is common for administrations to ask holdovers to step down, but what is less common is the abruptness of Friday’s announcement,” the outlet explained. “Two sources familiar with the Justice Department tell CNN they were unsure for some time whether such an action would happen and had been looking for some type of announcement—but received radio silence.”
Indeed, the “sudden request…was met with surprise by multiple federal prosecutors, with at least one first finding out about the demand on social media,” according to NBC News, which cited “a source close to the U.S. attorney.”
That source told NBC that the attorney “was wholly unaware that he was expected to resign Friday and had not been notified about the public announcement prior to the press release being received.”
NBC added: “The source says the U.S. attorney and other U.S. attorneys were surprised because on a Thursday conference call with Attorney General Jeff Sessions he concluded the call by telling them ‘happy hunting!’ Sessions, the source says, had given no indication about Friday’s announcement.”
Meanwhile, the Daily Beast reported late Friday night:
Bharara—whose office is in the end stages of an investigation of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, about to begin the trials of two close allies of Governor Andrew Cuomo, and also appears to be investigating how Fox News structured settlements of sexual harassment and other claims brought by its employees—met with Donald Trump shortly after the election and was told that he would stay. Just this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions assured him in a phone conversation that he’d remain atop the Southern District, according to the federal law enforcement official.
Since receiving the letter demanding his resignation Friday afternoon, Bharara has yet to speak to the press or to his full office. Friday evening, the law enforcement official said, Bharara told his section chiefs that he’d yet to submit the requested letter and may instead challenge Sessions to fire him.
The New York Times and other outlets reported Saturday that Bharara has not submitted his resignation and “also does not intend to do so over the weekend, he said in conversations with associates, a move that could force the hand of the Trump administration.”
Sure enough, Bharara tweeted from his personal account around 2:30pm EST that he had been fired.
Observers noted that the surprise development comes as right-wingers agitate for President Donald Trump to “purge” the government of Obama-era appointees.
As Ryan Koronowski wrote at ThinkProgress:
Trump’s conservative allies have increasingly calledfor him to rid the government bureaucracy of “enemies” they believe are secretly undermining his administration. In fact, on Sean Hannity’sThursday evening show, he warned of “deep-state Obama holdovers embedded like barnacles in the federal bureaucracy” saying they are “hell-bent on destroying President Trump.” Hannity said “it’s time for the Trump administration to purge these saboteurs.”
Multiple U.S. lawmakers expressed concern about the nature of the DOJ’s request.
“I’m surprised to hear that President Trump and Attorney General Sessions have abruptly fired all 46 remaining U.S. attorneys,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement Friday. “Under previous administrations, orderly transitions allowed U.S. attorneys to leave gradually as their replacements were chosen. This was done to protect the independence of our prosecutors and avoid disrupting ongoing federal cases.”
In fact, she continued, “In January, I met with Vice President Pence and White House Counsel Donald McGahn and asked specifically whether all U.S. attorneys would be fired at once. Mr. McGahn told me that the transition would be done in an orderly fashion to preserve continuity. Clearly this is not the case. I’m very concerned about the effect of this sudden and unexpected decision on federal law enforcement.”
“”At a time when Attorney General Sessions has recused himself from major investigations into the Trump campaign, the independence of federal prosecutors could not be more important,” Feinstein added. “That’s why many of us have called for the appointment of a special prosecutor.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, of New York, specifically cited Bharara’s case, saying: “The President initiated a call to me in November and assured me he wanted Mr. Bharara to continue to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District.”
Furthermore, he said, “By asking for the immediate resignation of every remaining U.S. Attorney before their replacements have been confirmed or even nominated, the President is interrupting ongoing cases and investigations and hindering the administration of justice.”