NEW YORK – Preet Bharara, the crusading federal prosecutor fired by President Trump on March 11, fired back Thursday, taking numerous shots – both hard-hitting and humorous – at the president and his policies.
In his first speech since his firing, at the historic Great Hall at the Cooper Union, Bharara on Thursday delivered a long, sometimes rambling call for what he sees as the American way.
He spelled out a vision of a welcoming America, with liberty and justice for all, that appeared at odds with the Trump administration's vision of an America getting tough on immigration and more open to business.
While Bharara didn't mention Trump by name when he said it, there was no question who Bharara was talking about when, on more than one occasion, he turned the president's words against him.
For example, Trump campaigned saying he wanted to "drain the swamp" of Washington.
In response, Bharara said: "To drain a swamp, you need an Army Corps of Engineers, not a do-nothing, say-nothing opportunist who knows a lot about how to bully and bluster, but not so much about truth, justice and fairness."
Earlier in the speech, Bharara came to the defense of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Democrats created after the 2008 financial crisis and which Republicans want to weaken, or even dissolve.
That agency "helped ordinary people get justice when they got ripped off," he said. "It drains a particular kind of swamp."
In a similar vein, Bharara told of how his parents arrived in America as penniless immigrants from India who thrived in America – to the point where their son served seven and a half years as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Telling his audience that his favorite experience in that job was presiding over a citizenship naturalization ceremony, Bharara again co-opted the president's words.
Talking about such ceremonies and the new Americans minted there, Bharara said: "They make America great."
Bharara's speech came just a few hours after a hearing in one of the key cases from during his tenure as a federal prosecutor: the sprawling prosecution of eight people caught up in alleged corruption in state development projects, including the "Buffalo Billion."
But Bharara never mentioned that in his speech or in his first interview since leaving office, which appeared just hours before the speech.
In the interview with the New York Times, Bharara called his firing “a direct example of the kind of uncertain helter-skelter incompetence, when it comes to personnel decisions and executive actions, that was in people’s minds when this out-of-the-blue call for everyone’s resignation letter came.”
Bharara's firing came a day after the Trump administration sent a letter to all U.S. attorneys appointed by former President Barack Obama, asking them to resign.
Figuring that Trump had asked him to stay on, Bharara refused to quit — only to get fired instead.
Bharara told the Times that he's never been told why he was fired less than four months after Trump had asked him to continue as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
And after the speech, in a brief question-and-answer session moderated by Cooper Union's president, Bharara was asked again why he was fired.
"Beats the hell out of me," he replied.
On a more serious note, Bharara said he deliberately wanted to be fired rather than resign with the other Obama-era U.S. attorneys.
"I wanted the record to reflect for all time that there was a deliberate decision … to change one's mind and deliberately fire me," he said.
Noting that he was not making any accusations about anyone, Bharara added: "I've lived long enough to know that you want the record to be clear."
The former prosecutor also told the Times that Trump called him three times after asking him to stay on. Bharara never took or returned the calls, fearing that doing so would run afoul of Justice Department policy regarding communications between prosecutors and presidents.
“I do not think it is wise for a sitting president to try cultivating a personal telephonic relationship with a sitting U.S. attorney, especially one with a certain jurisdiction,” he said, apparently referring to the fact that Trump Tower is located in the Southern District of New York.
Throughout the speech, it became clear that Bharara reveled in his job as Manhattan's chief prosecutor. He touted his office's accomplishments fighting crime, Wall Street wrongdoing, terrorism and political corruption. And gave the credit for those accomplishments to his underlings – the professional prosecutors who remain in that office – as well as to law enforcement.
Bharara — who led prosecutions that toppled both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican – seemed particularly offended by politicians who do wrong in office.
"The dream of honest government still seems a bit far away," he said.
What's more, he made clear he never wanted to seek elected office himself.
"I have no plans to enter politics, just as I have no plans to join the circus," he said. "And I mean no offense to the circus."
That was just one of several moments when Bharara filled the room with laughter.
For example, the crowd roared when he praised his press staff by saying: "They are the only people who stood between me and the dishonest media. That's what's called tongue in cheek."
They roared even louder when he looked out at the crowd size and claimed it was far bigger than any ever before in the historic hall, where Abraham Lincoln launched his 1860 campaign for the presidency and where Obama spoke several years ago.
"I don’t care what the pictures show," Bharara said, mocking Trump's complaints about the paltry estimates of his inauguration crowd size. "My crowd was a lot bigger than Obama's crowd. Much bigger. From where I stand here, it looks to be about 1 to 1.5 million people."
And the crowd of several hundred roared, too, when Bharara, early in his speech, made the first reference to his firing.
Recalling Trump's appearance as the star of "The Apprentice" who repeatedly fired his apprentices, Bharara said: "I thought that's what Donald Trump was good at."