On Friday afternoon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions “abruptly” asked for the resignations of all 46 remaining U.S. Attorneys at the Justice Department appointed during the Obama administration. Career prosecutors will oversee cases until the Trump administration begins nominating new U.S. Attorneys to take their place.
While this action is not unprecedented — Sessions himself was asked to resign as U.S. Attorney in 1993 by the Clinton administration — both George W. Bush and Barack Obama gradually eased prosecutors out of their appointments as they sought replacements, to preserve continuity.
“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,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said in a statement. “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.”
The Trump administration indicated they would follow suit, but reversed course without warning. In fact, on a Thursday conference call with U.S. Attorneys, Sessions wished them “happy hunting!” with no indication that they would all be asked to resign the next day by midnight.
Trump’s conservative allies have increasingly called for him to rid the government bureaucracy of “enemies” they believe are secretly undermining his administration. In fact, on Sean Hannity’s Thursday evening show, he warned of “deep-state Obama holdovers embedded like barnacles in the federal bureaucracy” saying they are “hell-bent on destroying President Trump.” Hannity said “it’s time for the Trump administration to purge these saboteurs.”
The day before, Hannity pushed the theory that the CIA actually hacked Democrats’ emails during the election and framed Russia for it. Hannity has been giving Trump dozens of fawning interviews for years. He’s a big fan of the president, and Trump returns the favor, talking up and reportedly watching his show regularly.
Many U.S. Attorneys nominated by the Obama administration had already resigned, which is usual when the White House changes parties. But acting deputy attorney general Dana Boente called the remaining prosecutors to ask for their resignations. A White House official reportedly said Trump has not accepted the resignation of Boente, also the U.S. Attorney for the Easter District of Virginia; after acting Attorney General Sally Yates was fired by Trump in January’s “Monday night massacre” for not complying with enforcing the Muslim ban, Trump made Boente acting Attorney General.
That was the first time a president had fired an attorney general since Richard Nixon. The Trump administration also broke with precedent when it refused to extend the nation’s ambassadors the usual courtesy of staying at their posts a few weeks beyond Inauguration Day.
“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,” agency spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement on Friday.
Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the state of New York with jurisdiction over Wall Street and the New York-based Trump organization, has been lauded by leaders on both sides of the aisle. Bharara stayed on the job after Trump won the election because Trump asked him to during a meeting in November. It was not initially clear whether Bharara had tendered his resignation like other U.S. Attorneys, or whether Trump would accept it if offered.
However on Saturday afternoon, CNN reported that sources confirmed Bharara would not resign as requested. A couple hours later, Bharara confirmed in a tweet that he had in fact been fired.
I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired. Being the US Attorney in SDNY will forever be the greatest honor of my professional life.
— Preet Bharara (@PreetBharara) March 11, 2017
It’s not clear who fired him. Trump traveled to his golf resort in Virginia on Saturday afternoon.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also signaled concern that the precedent of U.S. Attorneys being allowed to stay on until their successors were in place was being reversed. Schumer said Trump called him in November and assured him he wanted Bharara to stay on.
The New York Post, the Trump-friendly tabloid that a friend reportedly said was the “paper of record” for the president, urged Trump not to fire Bharara in an editorial because of the prosecutor’s “successful” pursuit of New York Democratic politicians like New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio.
It’s possible the urgency with which Bharara and other U.S. Attorneys were asked to resign was related to concerns that the Justice Department would begin to investigate corruption and conflicts of interest allegations facing Trump and his family business. On Wednesday, three watchdog groups asked Bharara to “to exercise your responsibility to investigate and take appropriate action to ensure that the Trump Organization and related Trump business enterprises do not receive payments and financial benefits from foreign governments that benefit President Trump.” Two days after taking the oath of office, Trump got hit with a lawsuit accusing him of violating the anti-corruption Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Very few U.S. Attorneys said anything publicly about resigning. “This afternoon, the President requested my resignation, along with the remaining presidentially appointed U.S. Attorneys across the country, effective at midnight tonight,” U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman said in a statement announcing his resignation on the Justice Department website. U.S. Attorneys in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Wyoming were the only others to release similar statements on the DoJ website.
The 93 chief federal prosecutors represent the United States in federal cases: public corruption, drug crimes, human trafficking, violent crimes, etc. U.S. Attorneys aid investigatory agencies like the FBI, IRS, ICE, and the DEA with direction and legal counsel. These agencies, and the U.S. Attorneys who will be deciding whether and how to prosecute public corruption, immigration, and tax evasion cases, for example, face drastic shifts in direction under the new administration, which faces allegations of conflicts of interest.
Sessions announced earlier this month that he would recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, though with Sessions himself possibly a target of the investigation, recusal itself may not eliminate conflicts of interest. ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser reported earlier this month that, “Every single employee of the Justice Department…is subordinate to Sessions. Even if Sessions is technically recused from the Russia investigation, he still has significant power to pressure the investigators and to impact their future within the Justice Department.”
A majority of the American public believes Sessions lied under oath and should resign from office.
This piece has been updated twice to include new information about Preet Bharara.