Preet Bharara, one of the most high-profile federal prosecutors in the country, was fired Saturday after refusing to submit a letter of resignation as part of an ouster of the remaining U.S. attorneys who were holdovers from the Obama administration, according to people familiar with the matter.
“I did not resign,” Bharara said on Twitter. “Moments ago I was fired. Being the US Attorney in SDNY will forever be the greatest honor of my professional life.”
On Friday, acting deputy attorney general Dana Boente began making calls to 46 prosecutors asking for their resignations. Such requests are a normal part of a transition of power from one administration to another, and about half of the 94 Obama-era U.S. attorneys had already left their jobs.
But Boente’s call to Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, appears to have left some confusion in its wake, in large part because President Trump met with Bharara soon after the election and had asked him to stay on.
During Friday’s call, Bharara asked for clarity about whether the requests for resignations applied to him, given his previous conversation with Trump, and did not immediately get a definitive answer, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
When asked Friday whether Bharara was also being asked for a resignation letter, one White House official not authorized to speak publicly said, “Everybody’s gone,” and would not engage further on the issue. Two people close to Trump said the president’s chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions want a clean slate of federal prosecutors and are unconcerned about any perception that the White House appears to have changed its mind about Bharara. The ouster of former president Barack Obama’s federal prosecutors is about asserting who’s in power, these people said.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Bharara, based in Manhattan, had a particularly powerful perch in the criminal justice system. He had pursued corrupt politicians, global terrorism suspects and corporate malfeasance.
There is no indication that the ousting of Bharara stems from a disagreement about a particular case or investigation. The president complained on Twitter earlier this month that Obama had ordered wiretapping of Trump Tower during the election season — an accusation that multiple federal law enforcement officials have said is untrue — partly because presidents cannot order the FBI to wiretap Americans, and also because no such surveillance was undertaken. But Bharara was not drawn into that debate, which principally revolved around Justice Department headquarters and FBI headquarters.
After Trump won the presidency, he met in late November with Bharara. The meeting came about, according to people familiar with the matter, after Mr. Trump called Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and congratulated him on becoming the leader of the Senate Democrats. In that conversation, Trump brought up Bharara, and said he was thinking of keeping him in his job, these people said. Schumer praised Bharara and Trump then arranged a meeting with Bharara at Trump Tower.
During the conversation, Trump told Bharara to call Sessions, his nominee for attorney general, who also asked Bharara to stay.
When Bharara was leaving, according to one person familiar with the meeting, he asked the president-elect what he should tell the reporters in the lobby. Trump told Bharara to tell them he was staying on, this person said.
Matt Zapotosky and Rosalind Helderman contributed to this report.