Firing Preet Bharara is not the answer to 'draining the swamp'
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The unceremonious dismissal of the 46 remaining President Obama-appointed United States Attorneys by President Trump over the weekend was a characteristically abrupt move for a White House that has become predictably unpredictable.

In particular, the firing of Preet Bharara, celebrated U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, after he refused to resign surprised many — especially considering his impressive record as a prosecutor and the apparent understanding reached between then President-elect Trump and Bharara that he would stay on.

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As brusque a move as it was to release Bharara and the other U.S attorneys from service, Trump’s team got busy reminding the press that replacing a vast majority of the country’s 94 U.S. attorneys is common practice for a new president. Indeed, Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama sent the U.S. attorneys from other presidents’ administrations packing. Bush and Obama did this gradually though.

 

So, yes, President Trump was well within his rights to replace even the unquestionably competent and dogged Bharara with his own pick. But that doesn’t mean he was right to do so.

The Department of Justice is not like the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, and most other cabinet-level agencies. Whereas those agencies are tasked with making policy which is largely based on politics, the DOJ has a very simple, non-partisan mandate: enforce the law.

The beginning of this presidency is not like the beginning of any others in memory. This White House has already been rocked by scandal. From the hastily executed — and Constitutionally questionable — travel ban to revelations that Russia and Turkey may have had undue, perhaps criminal, influence on members of Trump’s senior staff, as well as the president himself, this is no time to replace sentinels of justice who have proven themselves able to ignore party while seeking justice.

Preet Bharara is one of our most prominent protectors of the public trust. He started with Wall Street. As the U.S. attorney overseeing Manhattan and the hub of the nation’s financial industry, Bharara enforced the law on bad actors with ferocious success, winning major rulings against companies and individuals who cheated investors and taxpayers out of billions of dollars.

He then turned to a task many believed impossible: cleaning up public corruption in New York. What came next can only be described as game-changing.

 

Bharara fearlessly pursued corruption at the highest levels of New York politics, forcing the leaders of both houses of state government to resign, sending a chill down the spine of the state’s political establishment. The convictions themselves were huge strides forward for clean government. But the most impactful accomplishment was the deterring effect his cases had, overnight, on the abuse of power in Albany.

But the most impressive thing about Bharara’s crusade against corruption wasn’t what he did. It was how he did it. He prosecuted Democrats and Republicans equally and dispassionately, using only the law as his motive. For instance, the Senate majority leader he successfully prosecuted was a Republican. The Assembly Speaker he took down was a Democrat.

This is one reason why Trump’s dismissal of Bharara and the other U.S. attorneys must be explained by more than the “elections have consequences” talking point offered by the White House. Because, if a change of governing party is supposedly the reason for the move, why fire someone like Bharara, who has an unquestionable record of non-partisanship?

There are precedents for keeping former presidents’ U.S. attorneys on after an election. Rod Rosenstein, the federal prosecutor from Baltimore, was a Bush appointee held over by President Obama. Trump himself is keeping on Dana Boente, an Obama-appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Rosenstein and Boente have been nominated by Trump to be deputy attorneys general.

The White House has not offered any sort of philosophy for its restructured DOJ offices. Nor has it made clear what happens to the important cases being pursued by those U.S. attorneys who were let go. Presumably, they will continue to move forward. But U.S. attorneys have a lot of day-to-day discretion in how they prosecute.

So we are left to wonder if a prosecutor like Bharara — who is a well-known thorn in the side of a financial industry that loves this president, as well as a relentless pursuer of political corruption, and who, by the way, oversaw a district that includes Trump Tower — was fired simply because there is a changing of the guard, or because he was a threat.

We will likely never know. But one thing is for sure: dirty politicians and crooked bankers are glad to see Bharara go. For a president who promised to “drain the swamp,” taking Bharara off the beat looks curiously like Trump is happy to let it ooze even larger.

Evan Thies is a Democratic political consultant and co-founder of Pythia Public Affairs.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.