It’s unfortunate in the extreme and, to this point, utterly inexplicable. Why did President Trump ask Preet Bharara to stay on as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and then, in a Friday purge, suddenly dump him along with every other U.S. attorney?
There is nothing unusual about a new president replacing federal prosecutors appointed by his predecessor, especially one of a different party. However, it’s disconcerting when one of them has established a welcome record of ferreting out public corruption and had been previously asked to stay on.
New Yorkers have a right to ask why that happened. Bharara won several high-profile convictions of crooks in state government, including former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican. Bharara has other important government corruption cases pending, including one that alleges bid-rigging in the Buffalo Billion project at RiverBend. When it comes to fighting government corruption, he has been the best friend New Yorkers have had in decades.
It’s not that Bharara is irreplaceable. Other aggressive federal prosecutors exist. But the downside to dumping Bharara is greater than any possible benefit and flatly contradicts Trump’s own desire to keep him on.
Also worth knowing is why, after Trump demanded the resignations of all U.S. attorneys, Bharara made an issue of himself by refusing, forcing Trump to fire him on Saturday. Was it simply a matter of ego for the publicity-loving prosecutor, or of political positioning, or something else?
Here’s what we do know: There is no reason – zero – to believe that Bharara has rooted out all corruption in New York State government. It is too firmly entrenched in the culture to believe that even the examples of Silver and Skelos shook Albany out of its self-dealing ways.
It’s the main reason that Trump erred in throwing him out of office and why his replacement needs to be equally independent and equally determined to turn over the rocks that litter government in New York. This is no time to back off. On the contrary, it’s important to keep the pressure on.
Unfortunately, given Trump’s decision to behead every U.S. attorney’s office simultaneously, there is no telling how long it will take to appoint a successor. According to tradition, Sen. Charles E. Schumer would recommend a successor who, like Trump, would be a Republican. Whether that tradition will continue in the Trump administration is uncertain, but everything seems to be up for grabs these days.
The only good news that New Yorkers can take from this inexplicable and unwise decision is the likelihood that cases already pending in the Southern District office – in particular, those relating to government corruption – are strong and likely to continue unimpeded. Those cases were built by an office led by a strong prosecutor who refused to be intimidated. That’s what the office needs again.
The office Bharara left has been a springboard for others, including Robert Morgenthau, who later served as Manhattan district attorney for 34 years, and Rudolph Giuliani, later mayor of New York City. We hope and expect that we have not seen the last of Bharara.