This fireworks display over who serves as U.S. attorney for the Southern District matters most in the world of political optics.
Preet Bharara’s ouster from the post would have looked ordinary if the new president hadn’t invited him in for that little chat three weeks after the election.
Notably, the public story of their Trump Tower talk came from Bharara. He said that day: “We had a good meeting. I said I would absolutely consider staying on. I agreed to stay on.”
Just as notably, President Donald Trump’s camp never contradicted Bharara’s account.
The relevant fact of life is that presidents get to appoint their own U.S. attorneys. Bill Clinton asked for the resignations of 93 early on, though he isn’t said to have held any friendly chats with them first.
Speculation was rife after the Nov. 30 meeting over whether Trump had the conduct of any particular cases in mind as he stroked Bharara. The speculation grew louder once he fired him.
But back in November, Trump was in a cordial place with Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who was Bharara’s mentor. Since then, the president and senator exchanged barbs.
Again: We don’t know yet if either Bharara’s temporary successor, Deputy U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, or the president’s eventual nominee for the permanent job would change course on any of a number of high-profile investigations.
Because of its traditional place as first among prosecutors’ offices, the Southern District always gets extra attention. True to form, New York’s Eastern District, which covers three New York City boroughs and Long Island, produced no drama as short-term U.S. Attorney Robert Capers put in his papers as expected.
Bharara let it be known he didn’t tender his resignation as requested, but let himself be fired. Sometimes a dismissal beats quitting, not just because it allows the person to collect unemployment. Under the right circumstances, the fired party can earn a useful martyrdom.
Never mind that state Republicans applauded Bharara’s prosecutions of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and other big Democrats, as well as his irritation of Mayor Bill de Blasio.
If Bharara has a political future, it seems likely as not to be in the Democratic Party and very possibly in New York.
Doing things that make him look like he’s standing up to Republican Trump must carry more political upside for Bharara than downside.
Trump generated questions with the way he had Attorney General Jeff Sessions oust 46 Obama-era prosecutors, Bharara among them. Did he also have contact with others on the list? Was he responding to calls from some GOP loyalists for a “purge” of purported lefties — following Trump’s phobia about Obama “wiretaps” that nobody but he seems to know about?
If you don’t think Bharara relishes the public eye, consider his extracurricular speeches about corruption, his recent schmoozing with Hollywood stars at an Oscars party and his widely noted stepped-up Twitter activity in recent weeks.
Don’t expect his noisy venture into political martyrdom to knock Bharara out of view.