Barack Obama-appointed US attorney fired after refusing calls from Donald Trump's administration to resign

Role 'will forever be the greatest honour of my professional life,' says prominent prosecutor

Harriet Agerholm,Chris Stevenson
Saturday 11 March 2017 21:10
US Attorney Preet Bharara announced on Twitter he was fired after he failed to resign
US Attorney Preet Bharara announced on Twitter he was fired after he failed to resign

An outspoken New York federal prosecutor known for fiercely railing against public corruption has been fired after he refused an order from Donald Trump's administration to stand down.

It emerged on Friday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was seeking the resignations of 46 US attorneys who served under the leadership of Barack Obama.

However, US Attorney Preet Bharara refused to resign, announcing on Twitter on Saturday that he was instead sacked from his position.

"I did not resign," he said. "Moments ago I was fired. Being the US Attorney in SDNY will forever be the greatest honour of my professional life."

His dismissal comes months after he met with the President at Trump Tower, telling reporters afterwards the president had asked him to stay on and he was intending to do so.

Many of the federal prosecutors who were nominated by Mr Obama had already left their positions before the request, but some had stayed on in the first weeks of the Trump administration.

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said on Friday the forced resignations were necessary “in order to ensure a uniform transition”.

“Until the new US attorneys are confirmed, the dedicated career prosecutors in our US attorney's offices will continue the great work of the department in investigating, prosecuting and deterring the most violent offenders,” she said in a statement.

Within hours of the order, US attorneys around the country — including in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Montana — had publicly announced their resignations.

Although it is customary for the 93 US attorneys to leave their positions when a new President enters the office, the changes do not usually happen all at once. Mr Sessions lost his position as US attorney for the Southern District of Alabama in a similar sweep by then-Attorney General Janet Reno in 1993.

Questions about Mr Bharara were directed to the Justice Department by the White House on Saturday.

Mr Bharara was appointed by Mr Obama in 2009. In frequent public appearances, Mr Bharara has decried public corruption after successfully prosecuting over a dozen state lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike.

One US attorney appointed by President George W Bush – Rod Rosenstein of Maryland – remained in his position for the duration of the Obama administration.

A Justice Department spokesman, Peter Carr, said Mr Trump has asked Rosenstein and Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente, who has served as US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, to stay on.

Tim Purdon, a former US attorney for North Dakota in the Obama administration, recalled that President Barack Obama permitted Bush appointees to remain on until their successors had been appointed and confirmed.

“The way the Obama administration handled it was appropriate and respectful and classy,” he said. “This saddens me because many of these people are great public servants and now they are being asked to leave.”

Montana's US Attorney Mike Cotter said he received a phone call from Acting Attorney General Dana Boente telling him “the president has directed this".

“I think it's very unprofessional and I'm very disappointed,” he said. “What happened today on Friday, March 10, that was so important that all Obama appointees who are US attorneys need to be gone?”

“I gotta write that [resignation] letter. It's going to be a one-liner,” he added.

New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat, said in a statement last week that he was “troubled to learn” of the resignation demands, particularly of Mr Bharara, since Mr Trump called him in November and assured him that he wanted Bharara to remain Manhattan's top federal prosecutor.

Mr Schumer said that by requesting immediate resignations, Mr Trump was “interrupting ongoing cases and investigations and hindering the administration of justice.”

Mr Bharara, who was once lauded on the cover of Time magazine as the man who is “busting Wall Street” after successfully prosecuting dozens of insider traders, has in the past few years set his sights on prosecuting over a dozen state officeholders — Democrats and Republicans — including New York's two most powerful legislators.

The request from Mr Sessions came as Bharara's office is prosecuting former associates of Democratic Govenor Andrew Cuomo in a bribery case. Also, prosecutors recently interviewed New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as part of a probe into his fundraising. The mayor's press secretary has said the mayor is cooperating and that he and his staff had acted appropriately.

Mr Sessions' decision to include Mr Bharara's name on the list of resignations of holdovers from the Obama administration surprised Manhattan prosecutors and other political figures.

New York State Assemblyman Steven McLaughlin, a Republican, had urged Mr Trump and Mr Sessions to reconsider. “Big mistake,” he wrote on Twitter.

The request for resignations came just days after Mr Trump claimed that Mr Obama tapped his telephones during last year's election. FBI Director James Comey privately asked the Justice Department to dispute the claim because he believed the allegations were false. Mr Bharara worked for Mr Comey when he was US attorney in Manhattan under President George W Bush.

Additional reporting from Associated Press

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