U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara fired after refusing order to step down - The Buffalo News
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U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara fired after refusing order to step down

By Maggie Haberman and Benjamin Weiser

NEW YORK – Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who was asked by President Donald Trump to remain in his post shortly after the election, was fired Saturday after he refused an order to submit his resignation.

Bharara's dismissal capped a brief but highly unusual showdown in which a political appointee installed by Trump's predecessor, President Barack Obama, declined an order to submit a resignation.

He told the world what had happened on Twitter.

"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," Bharara wrote on his personal feed, which he set up in the past two weeks.

Bharara was among 46 holdover Obama appointees who were called by the acting deputy attorney general Friday and told to immediately submit their resignations and plan to clear out of their offices.

But Bharara, who was called to Trump Tower for a meeting with the incoming president in late November, declined to do so.

Bharara's office is overseeing a pending case against former close aides and associates of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and an inquiry into people close to Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, who has been a target of Trump's ire as he has positioned himself as a vocal opponent of the president's on the left.

The announcement that Bharara had been told to resign created feelings of whiplash inside his office, according to two people familiar with the views of current prosecutors. One of the people described an oddly subdued reaction mixed with anxiety as the events unfolded. "You have a sense of how it's going to end and it's not going to end well," this person said.

In November, Bharara met at Trump Tower with the president and several of his advisers, including Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, according to two people briefed on that discussion who requested anonymity to describe a private meeting with Trump.

At the meeting, according to those briefed, Trump urged Bharara to remain in the job. Bharara said after the meeting, "I agreed to stay on."

Bharara's dismissal came about a year into his office's investigation of de Blasio's campaign fundraising, an inquiry that is examining whether the mayor or his aides traded beneficial city action for political donations. And Bharara leaves his post at a sensitive juncture: De Blasio was interviewed recently by prosecutors who appear to be in the final stages of determining whether to seek charges in the matter.

There is little precedent for Bharara's refusal to resign; President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush also dismissed holdover political appointees in the Justice Department.

But the hasty nature of the dismissals, combined with Trump's previous request of Bharara that he stay on, made this an unusual episode.

It was unclear how many of the 46 holdovers had submitted resignations. By way of contrast, Bharara's colleague Robert L. Capers, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, announced his resignation Friday afternoon.

The White House has said little about the timing of the mass push for resignations, other than insisting it was not a response to a call for a purge that Trump saw on Fox News, where one host, Sean Hannity, urged the president to clean house at the Justice Department.

Two White House officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the promise to keep Bharara on was a product of a chaotic transition process and Trump's desire at the time to try to work with Sen. Chuck Schumer, with whom Bharara is close. The relationship between Trump and Schumer, the Senate minority leader, has since soured.

Phil Singer, a former aide to Schumer and a Democratic strategist, called it "absurd" to suggest Bharara's firing was meant to punish Schumer.

But Trump has felt under siege over leaks springing from the vast federal bureaucracy he oversees, and White House officials said that removing Bharara and the others was meant as a first step toward purging Obama appointees.

Before Bharara was fired Saturday, one of New York's top elected Republicans expressed support for him.

"Good for Preet, he is doing the job he was appointed to do!" Assemblyman Brian M. Kolb, the state Assembly minority leader, wrote on Twitter.

Assemblyman Steven F. McLaughlin, a Republican who was fond of calling for "draining the swamp" in Albany long before Trump embraced that expression, had urged Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reconsider Friday.

"Big mistake," he wrote on Twitter.

The Southern District of New York, which Bharara has overseen since 2009, encompasses Manhattan, Trump's home before he was elected president, as well as the Bronx, Westchester, and other counties north of New York City.

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