by Jack Shafer · March 13, 2017
Let’s not turn the publicity-hogging New York prosecutor into a martyr just because President Trump fired him.
Almost everybody errs at some point during their career by thinking that their job belongs to them and not to their boss. U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara pretended to make this mistake last week when he declined to hand in his resignation when, as is his right, President Donald Trump asked for it. Once the White House obliged Bharara’s grandstanding message of I won’t quit, you’ll have to fire me, the torrents of predictable press accolades began cascading down on him like a spring thaw in the Rockies.
The setup was near perfect. Trump’s lies and ham-fisted governance have transformed him into the best villain for the media since Richard Nixon recited “the press is the enemy, the press is the enemy” like an incantation in the White House in 1972. Trump could stoop to tie his shoes on the South Portico and the press would find some way to vilify him. Bharara, on the other hand, is an Obama hire who has charmed the press in his seven years. It’s not even a contest.
Reporters seeking documentation for his canonization knew where to go to gather praise. The Associated Press printed Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) testimonial on her Twitter feed: Bharara was “a fearless prosecutor who stands up to both parties and Wall Street. I guess that’s why Trump fired him.” Bharara patron Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) stopped short of identifying any miracles performed in the line of duty by the sacked prosecutor (a former aide of his), but he did issue a laudatory statement nearly every outlet broadcast for him: “Preet Bharara has been an exemplary U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.”
The New York Times enlisted journalism’s most heinous villain—the aforementioned Nixon—to elevate Bharara by comparing his firing with the late former president’s similar dismissal of U.S. Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau. Another Times piece, which did acknowledge that Bharara had been accused by one appeals court of “overreach” and had a way with ginning up publicity for his investigations, tallied his many successful prosecutions of insider traders, corrupt politicians from both parties and terrorists. As the Times recounted, Bharara once said that someone once asked him, “What again is your jurisdiction, exactly?” His answer, “Are you familiar with Earth?” What’s next for Bharara? asked the paper. Perhaps a political career of his own, it answered.
The heaving drama behind Bharara’s dismissal was faux, of course. U.S. attorney jobs are political appointments and many presidents before Trump—Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush and Obama—have exercised this privilege, sometimes beheading top prosecutors from their own parties. By demanding to be fired, Bharara made himself a martyr, but a martyr for what? The independence that Bharara imagines is, as the historical record tells us, provisional, so he’s a fool to martyr himself in its honor. Any attempt by him to portray himself as a victim because Trump told him face-to-face in November to stay on deserves our derision. The job, as noted above, belongs to the boss.
There’s much fretting that Bharara’s departure will scuttle several active investigations by his office. The Murdoch-controlled and Trump-friendly Fox News Channel may have failed to “properly alert shareholders of settlements with female employees who had accused the channel’s former chief, Roger Ailes, of sexual harassment,” as the Times put it. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) speculates vaguely that Trump’s chess move was about shielding himself from a corruption probe. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York is unique in that his investigations and potential investigations probably scrape up against thousands of rich and connected people, giving his supporters pretext for protesting that he’s being sacked for personal reasons. While this could be true, it still shouldn’t give Bharara or anybody else a permanent sinecure as prosecutor.
Will the firing lead to dropped investigations? The question implies that Bharara was the driving force behind them—not always a safe assumption. Writing in the New York Daily News, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel R. Alonso says it won’t matter. “Often lost in the discussion of the politics of selecting or firing top prosecutors is the strong culture in most U.S. attorneys offices, including the Southern District, to follow cases wherever they lead, without fear or favor.”
Not every reporter bought into Bharara’s martyrdom line. Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica gave the prosecutor his due over the weekend, but also judged his Wall Street investigations as “less aggressive” than his ones against political corruption. On Wall Street, Bharara went after hedge funds, which are “safer targets” than the giant banks. “Insider trading cases,” a Bharara specialty, “are relatively easy to win and don’t address systemic abuses that helped bring down the financial system,” Eisinger continues. St. Preet filed no criminal charges against any of the figures associated with Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, AIG, mortgage securities or the CDO businesses. In fact, Eisinger writes, “Bharara’s office brought one case for misconduct during the financial crisis—against a mid-level banker.”
Bharara flinched, too, when it came to holding New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo accountable for interfering with the corruption-hunting panel that he created and then shuttered. He also bullied Reason magazine in 2015 when he subpoenaed six commenters on the magazine’s website, gagging the magazine’s editors from discussing or acknowledging the subpoena or gag. (Disclosure: I have a book review in the new issue of Reason.) The closer you examine Bharara, the more apparent it becomes that he’s no more exceptional than your normal U.S. attorney—he’s just more savvy about calling attention to himself. As Eisinger writes, he was “given to well-orchestrated press conferences and memorable sound bites,” and the press eats that stuff up by the handful. Here’s Jeffrey Toobin in a laudatory 2016 New Yorker article, detailing his “media-friendly approach to what has historically been a closed and guarded institution.” When New York politician Sheldon Silver was arrested in 2015, Toobin writes, “Bharara—ignoring the traditions of the historically buttoned-down Southern District—turned the event into a media extravaganza.”
Media extravaganza would apply to the performance Bharara has uncorked for his exit, right down to the “I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired” tweet he issued on his way out the door. (Maybe we should start calling him Tweet Bharara.) The Times dutifully describes his kicking and screaming as “defiance,” a flattering word that belongs to genuine rebels, not prosecutors playing a media game with the president they can’t win.
That’s the charitable view of Preet Bharara. The uncharitable one is that he’s been a U.S. attorney for so long he’s started to believe his own clips.
I’m not resigning! They’ll have to fire me, cut me into small pieces and chum the waters of the Potomac with my bloody bits! Send fishing tips to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts go for bass, my Twitter feed loves bottom feeders and my RSS feed says, “Hell, yes, I shoot fish in a barrel.”