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What led to Preet Bharara’s firing?

Donald Trump Presidency Updated: Mar 12, 2017 20:57 IST
Yashwant Raj
Preet Bharara departs after meeting with US President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York on November 30, 2016.

Preet Bharara departs after meeting with US President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York on November 30, 2016. (REUTERS FILE)

Defiant to the last moment, Preet Bharara, the high profile Indian-origin 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.

“I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired,” Bharara announced on Twitter, from an account he had set up only recently, ending an intriguing stand-off 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 US attorneys. He told the White House 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. At the time, 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 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 the building in full glare of TV cameras and reporters.

“I agreed to stay on,” Bharara told reporters then, “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.

In a statement later, he said: “Serving my country as US Attorney here for the past seven years will forever be the greatest honour 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.”

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.

Schumer said he was “troubled to learn” of the resignation demands, particularly of Bharara, since Trump assured him that he wanted Bharara to remain in place.

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 admiration 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.

Michigan Representative John Conyers, the House Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, requested that the committee receive a summary of probes linked to Trump, whether they touch on his administration, transition, campaign and organization, “so that we can understand the full implications of this weekend’s firings.” 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.”

Sessions’ decision to include Bharara’s name on the list of 46 resignations surprised Manhattan prosecutors.

Bharara has gone after over a dozen state officeholders, including New York’s two most powerful lawmakers.

His office is investigating the financial terms of settlements of sexual-harassment claims against Fox News by its employees. Bharara’s office is prosecuting former associates of Democratic Governor Andrew M. Cuomo in a bribery case. Also, prosecutors recently interviewed New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in a probe on fundraising.

Annemarie McAvoy, a former Brooklyn federal prosecutor, said there’s a good chance any subpoena seeking information about Trump campaign links to Russians would go through Bharara’s office.(With inputs from agencies)