WASHINGTON — The Trump administration moved Friday to sweep away most of the remaining vestiges of Obama administration prosecutors at the Justice Department, ordering 46 holdover U.S. attorneys to tender their resignations immediately — including Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
The firings were a surprise — especially for Bharara, who has a reputation for prosecuting public corruption cases and for investigating insider trading. In November, Bharara met with then President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan and told reporters afterward that both Trump and Jeff Sessions, who is now attorney general, had asked him about staying on, which the prosecutor said he expected to do.
But on Friday, Bharara was among federal prosecutors who received a call from Dana Boente, the acting deputy attorney general, instructing him to resign, according to a person familiar with the matter. As of Friday evening, though some of the prosecutors had publicly announced their resignations, Bharara had not. A spokesman for Bharara declined to comment.
Sarah Isgur Flores, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in an email that all remaining holdover U.S. attorneys had been asked to resign, leaving their deputy U.S. attorneys, who are career officials, in place in an acting capacity.
“As was the case in prior transitions, many of the United States Attorneys nominated by the previous administration already have left the Department of Justice,” she said in the email. “The Attorney General has now asked the remaining 46 presidentially appointed U.S. Attorneys to tender their resignations in order to ensure a uniform transition.”
The abrupt order came after two weeks of increasing calls from Trump’s allies outside the government to oust appointees from President Barack Obama’s administration. Trump has been angered by a series of reports based on leaked information from a sprawling bureaucracy, as well as from his own West Wing.
Several officials said the firings had been planned before Friday.
But the calls from the acting deputy attorney general arose a day after Sean Hannity, the Fox News commentator who is a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, said on his evening show that Trump needed to “purge” Obama holdovers from the federal government. Hannity portrayed them as “saboteurs” from the “deep state” who were leaking secrets to hurt Trump. It also came the same week that government watchdogs wrote to Bharara and urged him to investigate whether Trump had violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bars federal officials from taking payments from foreign governments.
In Hannity’s monologue, he highlighted the fact that the Clinton administration had told all 93 U.S. attorneys to resign soon after he took office in 1993, and that “nobody blinked an eye,” but he said it became a scandal when the George W. Bush administration fired several top prosecutors midway through his second term.
Several Democratic members of Congress said they only heard that the U.S. attorneys from their states were being immediately let go shortly before the Friday afternoon statement from the Justice Department. One senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect the identity of the U.S. attorney in that state, said that an Obama-appointed prosecutor had been instructed to vacate the office by the end of the day.
Although it was not clear whether all were given the same instructions, that U.S. attorney was not the only one told to clear out by the close of business. The abrupt nature of the dismissals distinguished Trump’s mass firing from Clinton’s, because the prosecutors in 1993 were not summarily told to clear out their offices.
Michael D. McKay, who was the U.S. attorney in Seattle under the George Bush administration, recalled that even though he had already made plans to leave, he nevertheless stayed on for about three weeks beyond a request by then-Attorney General Janet Reno for all of the holdover prosecutors to resign. He also recalled at least one colleague who was in the midst of a major investigation and was kept on to finish it.
“I’m confident it wasn’t on the same day,” he said, adding: “While there was a wholesale ‘Good to see you, thanks for your service, and now please leave,’ people were kept on on a case-by-case basis depending on the situation.”
Two U.S. attorneys survived the firings: Boente, the top prosecutor for the Eastern District of Virginia, who is serving as acting deputy attorney general, and Rod Rosenstein, the top prosecutor in Baltimore, whom Trump has nominated to be deputy attorney general.
“The president called Dana Boente and Rod Rosenstein tonight to inform them that he has declined to accept their resignation, and they will remain in their current positions,” said Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman.
It remains possible that Trump and Sessions could put others on that list later.
It is not unusual for a new president to replace U.S. attorneys appointed by a predecessor, especially when there has been a change in which party controls the White House.
Still, other presidents have done it gradually in order to minimize disruption, giving those asked to resign more time to make the transition while keeping some inherited prosecutors in place, as it had appeared Trump would do with Bharara. Obama, for example, kept Rosenstein, who had been appointed by George W. Bush.
The abrupt mass firing appeared to be a change in plans for the administration, according to a statement by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“In January, I met with Vice President Pence and White House Counsel Donald McGahn and asked specifically whether all U.S. attorneys would be fired at once,” she said. “Mr. McGahn told me that the transition would be done in an orderly fashion to preserve continuity. Clearly this is not the case. I’m very concerned about the effect of this sudden and unexpected decision on federal law enforcement.”
Still, the cases the various federal prosecutors were overseeing will continue, with their career deputies becoming acting U.S. attorneys in their place for the time being.
Bharara has been among the highest-profile U.S. attorneys, with a purview that includes Wall Street and public corruption prosecutions, including of Democratic and Republican officials and other influential figures.
His office, for example, has prosecuted top police officials in New York and the powerful leader of the city correction officers’ union; they have pleaded not guilty. It is preparing to try a major public corruption case involving former aides and associates of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and is looking into allegations of pay-for-play around Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York.
But Bharara is also closely associated with the Senate minority leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Bharara was formerly a counsel to Schumer, who pushed Obama to nominate Bharara to be the top federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.
At the time of the November meeting at Trump Tower, Schumer was saying publicly that Democrats should try to find common ground and work with the president-elect. But relations between Trump and Schumer have since soured.
Trump has called Schumer the Democrats’ “head clown” and accused him of shedding “fake tears” over the president’s efforts to bar refugees from entering the United States.
For his part, Schumer has called for an independent investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and demanded that Sessions resign for having testified that he had no contacts with Russians even though he had met with the Russian ambassador.
The White House officials ascribed the reversal over Bharara as emblematic of a chaotic transition process. One official said it was tied to Trump’s belief in November that he and Schumer would be able to work together.