Defiant to the end, Preet Bharara, the high profile Indian-born US attorney often called the Sheriff of Wall Street, refused to hand over his resignation, among the 46 sought by the Trump administration and announced he had been fired.
While there were no indications his firing, or the others, had anything to do with any investigation linked to President Donald Trump, his campaign or aides, critics have sought details. John Conyers, the House Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, said he suspected Bharara “could be reviewing a range of potential improper activity emanating from Trump Tower and the Trump campaign, as well as entities with financial ties to the president or the Trump organization”.
Others have alleged the firing could have been aimed at preempting any investigation of Trump or his aides’ links to Russia that Bharara’s office might have been pursuing.
Bharara himself has not given any such indication. “I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired,” he said in a tweet on Saturday, and in a statement said, “Serving my country as US Attorney 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. One hallmark of justice is absolute independence, and that was my touchstone every day that I served.”
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
The tweet about his resignation came at the end of an intriguing set of events that began with a phone call from the White House to his office on Thursday, asking him to call back. He did, but only after he had looped in the office of the attorney general Jeff Sessions about a possible breach of protocols regarding contacts between the president and a US attorney. He called the White House and told them he couldn’t speak to the president.
It wasn’t clear if these calls had anything to do with his ouster, or if the President had personally wanted to give him a heads-up having asked him earlier to stay on, or if it was about any investigation or case being pursued by Bharara’s office.
Bharara, who as US attorney for the Southern District of New York built a formidable reputation pursuing security scams and insider trading, was asked on Friday to resign, along with 45 other US attorneys appointed by President Barack Obama.
Every new president does that — President Bill Clinton had removed 90 US attorneys after taking office — and President Donald Trump was doing the same, as a justice department spokeswoman said in explanation of the resignations.
Except, as Bharara argued to the justice department official who called to ask for his resignation, the president had asked him to continue and by seeking his resignation now he was actually firing him. Bharara didn’t say anything publicly though.
After another phone call with that justice department official, during which they are reported to have had a similar conversation, Bharara announced his firing on Twitter, ending a stand-off that shot to the top of headlines over a relatively quieter weekend.
Trump had Bharara to stay on after a meeting in November at Trump Tower where he, as president-elect, was building his team, with candidates rolling in and out of the building in full glare of TV cameras and reporters.
“I agreed to stay on,” Bharara told reporters, “I have already spoken to Senator Sessions, who is as you know the nominee to be the attorney general. He also asked that I stay on, and so I expect that I will be continuing to work at the southern district.”
On Friday, he was asked to turn in his papers.
Unidentified White House officials have said, according to media reports, the president had indeed asked Bharara to continue in anticipation of better relations with Senator from New York Chuck Schumer, who is close to Bharara.
Schumer is the leader of senate Democrats and Trump might have wanted him on his side to garner bipartisan support for his legislative agenda, but the two have since clashed on most issues, with the ensuing war of words ending in name-calling.
According to another account, Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon and Sessions wanted to clean up the administration of all Obama holdovers and Bharara, who was named to the office by the former president seven year ago, had to go too.
Bharara had become in November the third Indian American invited by Trump to join his administration after South Carolina governor Nikki Haley who had been tapped for US ambassador to UN and Seema Verma for medicaid and medicare services.
Trump went on to hire a few more Indian Americans — Ajit Pai as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; Uttam Dhillon as a member of the White House legal team and Raj Shah as part of the White House communications group.