President Donald Trump’s administration asked remaining U.S. attorneys appointed by President Barack Obama to offer their resignations Friday, a seemingly abrupt move that surprised many—including the officeholders asked to leave.
At the top of that list was Preet Bharara, who oversees the powerful Manhattan office, which is known for handling high-profile Wall Street and terrorism cases. In November, Bharara met with the president-elect at Trump Tower and then held a press conference in the lobby to say that he would continue to serve the new administration.
People in the White House, however, said the dismissals had been discussed for weeks. “Been in the works for awhile. Decided to pull the trigger today,” said one senior administration official.
“We were always planning for it on about Day 50,” this person said.
The removal of U.S. attorneys has been politically fraught for years, with the midterm dismissal of eight chief federal prosecutors in December 2006 causing a firestorm that ultimately led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The timing and scope of such dismissals have often led to charges and counter-charges that they violated prior precedents. President Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, asked for resignations in March 1993, but allowed U.S. attorneys to stay in place until their replacements could be confirmed.
It appears the Trump administration plans to handle the dismissals differently. “The attorney general has now asked the remaining 46 presidentially appointed U.S. attorneys to tender their resignations in order to ensure a uniform transition,” Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Flores said in a statement on Friday afternoon. “Until the new U.S. attorneys are confirmed, the dedicated career prosecutors in our U.S. attorney’s offices will continue the great work of the department in investigating, prosecuting, and deterring the most violent offenders.”
Flores initially declined to comment when asked if the prosecutors had to leave their posts right away, but said later Friday that the resignations were to be “effective immediately.”
While the White House initially indicated to reporters that all 46 of the remaining Obama-appointed U.S. attorneys were told to depart, a senior administration official told POLITICO Friday night that the list of which prosecutors would be told to exit was “not finalized.”
The White House has not yet lined up replacements for the Obama-era U.S. attorneys being shown the door, a senior administration official told POLITICO. Trump has not yet formally nominated anyone to a U.S. attorney post.
When the mass ouster was first announced it was unclear whether it included the Obama-appointed U.S. attorney in Alexandria, Virginia, Dana Boente, who is currently serving as acting deputy attorney general, or Trump’s nominee to serve in that position on a permanent basis, the Obama-appointed U.S. attorney for Maryland, Rod Rosenstein.
However, the Justice Department said Friday evening that Trump decided Boente and Rosenstein would continue in their posts. “The president called Dana Boente and Rod Rosenstein tonight to inform them that he has declined to accept their resignation, and they will remain in their current positions,” Flores said.
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred questions back to the Justice Department.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said he was “particularly” troubled by the removal of Bharara, who once worked as his chief counsel.
“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,” Schumer noted.
“While it’s true that presidents from both parties made their own choices for U.S. attorney positions across the country, they have always done so in an orderly fashion that doesn’t put ongoing investigations at risk. They ask for letters of resignation but the attorneys are allowed to stay on the job until their successor is confirmed,” Schumer wrote.
“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,” the New York Democrat added.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein of California, said she was “surprised” by the Trump administration’s move, which she said was at odds with assurances she had received from the White House.
“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,” Feinstein said in a statement.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ request for the U.S. attorneys’ resignations comes as he is preparing to implement a series of significant policy shifts at the department, pushing for tougher prosecution of gun and drug offenses and parting company with the Obama administration’s embrace of more lenient sentences for some drug convicts.
In 2007, President George W. Bush’s administration sought to defend his firing of eight U.S. attorneys by asserting that President Bill Clinton had fired all sitting U.S. attorneys in 1993 “in one fell swoop,” as a top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales put it.
However, that was not entirely true. In both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the vast majority of U.S. attorneys were replaced in the first year, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2007. The Clinton team asked for resignation letters in March, but also allowed many prosecutors to stay until their successors were confirmed.
Bharara is wrapping up a year-long criminal probe of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and New York’s political class and City Hall is expecting an announcement or possible indictments in the next month.
While much of Bharara’s team will remain, it is unclear if his departure could change the investigation, being led by the public corruption unit. Additionally, the prosecutor is probing the governor’s office.
“Preet definitely wanted to keep his job,” said one person who knows Bharara well.
Bharara himself “did not give off the vibe that he was expecting a change,” said an acquaintance of Bharara who attended an event with him in recent days. But the acquaintance noted that Bharara had started his own personal twitter feed last week, writing in his first tweet “stay tuned…” “So maybe he had his own vibe,” the acquaintance said.
A spokeswoman for Bharara had no immediate comment.
The news left many in Bharara’s office grasping for explanations, said a New York lawyer who has worked with the office. “Nobody knows what’s going on,” the lawyer said, adding that some in the office believed that Trump’s apparent reversal on keeping Bharara might be linked to the president’s increasingly hostile relationship with Bharara’s former boss Schumer.
At least one prosecutor, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based U.S. attorney Robert Capers, indicated he was told Friday to clear out by the end of the day. Capers said he was being replaced on an acting basis by a career deputy.
“This afternoon, I was instructed to resign my position as United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, effective March 10, 2017,” Capers said in a statement. “It has been my greatest honor to serve my country, New York City and the people of this district for almost 14 years, with the last 17 months serving as United States Attorney.”