Preet Bharara had fully anticipated that he could lose his job when President Donald Trump entered the Oval Office. After all, it’s standard protocol for US attorneys to be let go when the opposing party takes the executive branch.
But the former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York was caught off guard because the context of his firing was slightly unusual.
‘I really want Preet to stay’
At the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit Wednesday, Bharara recounted a phone call he received from New York Senator Chuck Schumer eight days after the election. Schumer relayed the message to Bharara: “I really want Preet to stay.”
So, Bharara met with then president-elect Trump, Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner on the 26th floor of the Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan on November 30.
“It was a very nice meeting and an unusual meeting. People like to use the word ‘unprecedented.’ I’m not aware of any time when a new president-elect has asked to meet with a particular US attorney, particularly one who was appointed by a president of the other party. And he was very complimentary of the work that my office had done and asked me to stay on for another term, and I agreed. I agreed to stay,” he said.
But, then, between the election and his inauguration, Bharara started receiving phone calls from the president — seemingly innocuous “chit chats,” he said.
But Bharara said that anyone who has seen some of the testimony of former FBI director Jim Comey can attest that it’s unusual to be called by the president.
“It’s less unusual for an FBI director who has to deal with national security and terrorism issues, but Donald Trump kept calling me on the phone just to chat about stuff,” he explained.
Trump called Bharara again on January 18, just two days before his inauguration. Bharara concluded that it was appropriate to take his calls, as Trump was still president-elect and had no real authority.
“We made a determination among ourselves, including with the head of DOJ transition at the time, that this should not continue to happen after this man becomes president, for a lot of reasons, including the appearance issue. And, the appearance issue related to, among other things, the kind of jurisdiction that I had in Manhattan as the top federal prosecutor there, over businesses and people and buildings,” he said.
A missed call from the president
Then, on March 9, Bharara missed a call from the president, because his assistant had left early for the day. After an hour of contemplation, Bharara decided not to return the call.
“It’s not an easy thing not to return a call of anybody who is putatively your boss. And this is the president of the United States. When you’re a US attorney, attorney general or FBI director, you have to maintain an arm’s length because of the independence and integrity of not just investigations you may have ongoing but the perception of what that independence is,” said Bharara.
Trump — who had been so critical of the “tarmac meeting” between Bill Clinton and then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch when she was in charge of an investigation of candidate Hillary Clinton — was engaging in the same kind of inappropriate conduct, according to Bharara.
“Donald Trump himself had used that for great political advantage at every rally that I heard him at, saying, ‘Well, something untoward must have happened.’ And here we were, with the president of the United States calling me, unbeknownst I think to the attorney general or anyone else,” he said.
Bharara said even though each of his interactions with the president were entirely innocent, he didn’t want to leave any room for interpretation and misjudgment.
“Maybe it was going to be a natural, fun conversation and chit chat, but how was it going to look later to other people? So I didn’t return the call,” he explained.
‘I wasn’t refusing to resign out of any kind of defiance’
Twenty hours later, he was asked for his resignation, which Bharara refused to do because he was genuinely perplexed, given Trump’s apparent affinity for him.
“I wasn’t refusing to resign out of any kind of defiance. I didn’t know if it was a mistake because these guys are not so competent about things — like with the travel ban or anything else. I had had this meeting with great fanfare. Maybe they forgot that I had a different kind of position,” he said.
“Given that this man had asked me to stay and shaken my hand and no circumstances had changed to my knowledge, that if he wanted me to go, it should be clear that he wanted me to go, and not some acting functionary at the Department of Justice, because I don’t know what’s going to come up later.”
Bharara said he believes that had he not been fired and if the phone calls had continued in private, he would have been backed into a corner.
“At some point, the purpose of cultivating a relationship with the sitting US attorney of Manhattan was going to be to ask me to do something inappropriate. I can’t prove that, I don’t know that for a fact, but given all the evidence and common sense and my having lived life for some period of time and having a sense of that guy’s character, I think that’s what would have happened, and so here we are,” he said.
While Bharara still hasn’t received an explanation, he knows it is not normal to be forced to vacate the premises by midnight that day. It’s been seven months since he was fired, and there still hasn’t been a replacement nominated for his former post.
Now, Bharara is a distinguished scholar in residence at NYU Law, a legal analyst for CNN and has a weekly podcast, “Stay Tuned with Preet.”
Despite the less-than-desirable circumstances of his firing, Bharara has been enjoying his professional career change.
“I’m not complaining about it, here I am at Vanity Fair, it’s awesome,” he said, “and I’m leading a great life.”
Melody Hahm is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.