Preet Bharara, the powerful Manhattan prosecutor who was among 46 US attorneys asked to step down late Friday, was fired on Saturday after he refused to resign, an order from attorney general Jeff Sessions.
“I did not resign,” Bharara tweeted on Saturday afternoon. “Moments ago I was fired.”
The prosecutor later said that his time as the US attorney for the southern district of New York “will forever be the greatest honor 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,” he said in a statement. He added the current deputy US attorney, Joon H Kim, will assume the role of acting US attorney.
On Friday afternoon, attorney general Jeff Sessions told the prosecutors, nearly all appointed by Barack Obama, that they should resign from their posts. The overhaul of US attorneys is standard practice for a new administration, though some presidents do so in phases. Bharara, 48, met with Trump late last year, however, and told reporters afterward that he had “agreed to stay on”.
“The president-elect asked,” Bharara said at the time, “presumably because he’s a New Yorker and is aware of the great work that our office has done over the past seven years, asked to met with me to discuss whether or not I’d be prepared to stay on as the United States attorney to do the work we have done, independently, without fear or favor for the last seven years.
“We had a good meeting,” he added. “I said I would absolutely consider staying on. I agreed to stay on. I have already spoken to Senator Sessions, who as you know is the nominee for attorney general. He also asked that I stay on, and so I expect that I will be continuing to work at the southern district.”
The White House referred questions about the firing to the justice department, which did not immediately respond to a call or email. A press officer for the southern district of New York did not answer several questions from the Guardian. “We’ll decline to comment,” the officer said.
On Saturday morning, the Associated Press, Reuters, and other and outlets cited anonymous sources to report that Bharara did not plan to submit a resignation letter, at least not yet. the prosecutor’s refusal set up a clash between one of the country’s most powerful attorneys and the president, whose administration fired Bharara directly, as it did the acting attorney general, Sally Yates.
Over seven years as the top prosecutor in the southern district of New York, Bharara has pursued aggressive cases and investigations into corruption in politics and Wall Street. At the time he was asked to resign, Bharara was overseeing investigations into aides and associates of the Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and the Democratic mayor, Bill de Blasio. His office also reportedly opened an investigation into Fox News, into whether the network failed to tell shareholders that it had settled sexual harassment claims made against former CEO Roger Ailes. Since taking office, Bharara has prosecuted the former Republican state senator Dean Skelos, high-profile insider trader cases and a 120-person Bronx case believed to be the largest gang prosecution in city history.
Before being appointed by Obama in 2009, Bharara rose to prominence working for New York senator Chuck Schumer, now the minority leader in the Senate. Bharara served as chief counsel to Schumer during the latter years of George W Bush’s presidency, and led the investigation into the abrupt dismissals of US attorneys in 2006.
In a statement, Schumer praised Bharara for a “relentless drive to root out public corruption, lock up terrorists, take on Wall Street, and stand up for what is right”.
The prosecutor’s example, Schumer said, “should serve as a model for all US attorneys across the country. He will be sorely missed.”
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the most notable precedent for the mass removal of US attorneys was in 1993, when Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, asked for the resignations of prosecutors appointed by George HW Bush. Tobias said a problem with such abrupt requests was that they leave prosecutors’ offices without permanent leadership.
“This is fairly disruptive,” Tobias said. “No one’s been nominated for any of these 46 positions.”
The attorney general for New York state, the Democrat Eric Schneiderman, expressed similar concerns, saying that the president’s “abrupt and unexplained decision” had caused “chaos in the federal government and led to questions about whether the Justice Department’s vital and nonpartisan work will continue”.
Neither the White House nor the Justice Department have provided explanations about the sudden dismissal of the US attorneys.
Tobias said that the southern district is “the preeminent office” in the US, considered bipartisan and largely independent. “It’s not like your’e going to lose the expertise, you just don’t have the continuity you’d want, or, more importantly for the administration, the permanent person who can speak for the administration and work closely with justice headquarters in DC.”
Pending investigations would not necessarily be abandoned, he said, but any cases “with questions or controversy around them” might be shelved indefinitely.