Bharara, Tweaking Trump, Says ‘No Plans’ to Run for Office

  • Ex-Manhattan U.S. Attorney speaks to New York audience
  • First public speech for Bharara since he was fired by Trump

Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks during a press conference in New York on Dec. 21, 2016.

Photographer: Peter Foley/Bloomberg

Former New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara gave a speech loaded with tongue-in-cheek digs at the president who fired him last month and lamented an era in which ideology and politics have come to shape everything from policy to personal friendship. 

Speaking publicly for the first time since he was dismissed by the administration of President Donald Trump, Bharara told an audience at the historic Cooper Union in New York that he had no interest in seeking elected office and urged his former office to preserve its independent streak. 

“Our office should never be a rubber stamp for the White House,” Bharara said. “When independence comes into question people wonder if justice can be done.” He said he expected the work of the office to remain independent under the leadership of his successors.

Though he reiterated his oft-professed disdain for politics, Bharara’s speech was packed with the kind of lofty rhetoric often heard on the campaign trail, with praise for American idealism on immigration, values and opportunity. He said much work remains ahead to make the U.S. a fairer society with less governing power held by special interests and more honest government. He returned -- repeatedly -- to subtle mocking of Trump’s pledge to "drain the swamp" of Washington lobbying power.

"There is a swamp," Bharara said. "The system is rigged. A lot of Americans have been left behind. That is a fact. That is not fake news. But you don’t fix that with a slogan."

He also poked fun at Trump’s insistence that his inauguration crowd was the largest in history, with an opening jab at the size of the audience attending his speech. "I don’t care what the pictures show," Bharara said. "From where I stand here, it looks to me like 1 to 1.5 million people."

Trump’s Clash With Justice Department Sparks ‘You’re Fired’

Bharara was recommended as Manhattan U.S. attorney by Senator Chuck Schumer, and appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009. He won widespread acclaim for prosecuting insider-trading cases in the wake of the financial crisis, winning dozens of high-profile convictions against top portfolio managers at multibillion-dollar hedge funds.

His office also pursued public corruption cases against elected officials in New York state, winning convictions against the leaders of the state assembly and senate, as well as terrorism and corporate malfeasance cases.

In legal circles, Bharara was speculated to be a short-list candidate for attorney general if Hillary Clinton were elected president, and it seemed likely he would be asked to move on in the aftermath of Trump’s election, a common practice when the presidency changes party hands.

So, it came as a surprise when the then-president-elect summoned him to Trump Tower on Nov. 30, as he was planning his transition, and asked Bharara to remain in the job. Bharara went out and passed on the message to reporters gathered at the building.

Attorneys Dismissed

Then, just as surprisingly, Bharara was asked to submit his resignation three months later along with 45 other U.S. attorneys around the country who had remained in their roles following Trump’s move into the White House.

The announcement by the U.S. Justice Department came on a Friday afternoon; what followed was a chaotic 24-hour period in which Bharara tried to determine whether it applied to him as well. He ultimately announced his departure on Twitter the following afternoon, saying: “I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired."

Bharara, who has begun an academic-in-residence role at New York University’s law school, gave little indication of what his future plans hold, saying only that he intended to remain an active voice in public affairs.

"I can no longer direct the actions of armed and trained men, which by the way is a total bummer," he said. "But as a private citizen, I have no intention of surrendering my voice."

He lamented the arrival of an era where political orientation even influences friendships. He related a story from his time in Washington in which he was questioned about his friendship with Viet Dinh, a staunchly conservative lawyer who served in the Justice Department under George W. Bush. Bharara said he was Dinh’s best man in his wedding.

"What are we coming to when you’re not allowed to be friends with someone who you don’t agree with?" Bharara said.

Of the circumstances that led to his removal, Bharara had few new details to share. He said he was asked to resign, refused, and was fired, but had no idea what prompted the request. 

"I believed that that’s what Donald Trump was good at," Bharara said, referring to Trump’s television show "The Apprentice" in which he would dismiss a contestant each week with his "You’re fired" catchphrase. "He manned up ... and said, ‘Would you kindly submit your letter of resignation?’"

He added: "By the way, I have no plans to enter elective politics, just as I have no plans to join the circus. And I mean no offense to the circus."

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