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Abrupt dismissals leave US attorneys scrambling

March 13,2017 16:44

The seemingly abrupt about-face Friday left the affected U.S. attorneys scrambling to brief the people left behind and say goodbye to colleagues. It also could have an impact on morale for the career prosecutors who now must pick up the slack ...

On the surface, the idea that a president would replace an existing slate of U.S. Attorneys with his own federal prosecutors doesn’t seem controversial. U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of a president, and there’s ample recent precedent for new administrations nominating new prosecutors soon after Inauguration Day.But as is often the case with Donald Trump, there’s nothing routine about developments that unfolded late Friday and over the weekend.

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The Rachel Maddow Show, 3/10/17, 9:26 PM ET

Abrupt Trump purge of US attorneys raises questions

Rachel Maddow reports on the sudden, unexpected purge of 46 U.S. attorneys from the Justice Department, including Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who has been asked personally by Donald Trump to stay on.

Let’s start with the basics. On Friday afternoon, 46 Obama-era federal prosecutors were told to submit their resignations – and clean out their offices before close of business. These federal prosecutors weren’t given advance notice or any kind of explanation. To be sure, they knew this was a possible outcome, but they’ve been working under the Trump administration for nearly two months, overseeing a series of ongoing federal cases.And while Trump’s authority to make this decision is not in doubt, there are all kinds of questions about why the president made this call at this time. As Rachel noted on Friday’s show, and NBC News reported over the weekend, there’s one U.S. Attorney in particular that’s drawing more attention for good reason.And this is where the story gets a little weird. Preet Bharara has earned a reputation as one of the most important legal figures in the United States, overseeing a U.S. Attorney’s office that’s tackled critically important cases – on matters ranging from terrorism to Wall Street to government corruption.Bharara was appointed by President Obama, but he wanted to stay on at his post, and during the presidential transition period, Donald Trump specifically told Bharara that he could keep his job. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the same commitment to the New York prosecutor.On Friday afternoon, however, Trump reversed course and asked for Bharara’s resignation. Bharara refused, prompting the president to fire him on Saturday.Trump does not have a successor in place. Indeed, for all 46 of the U.S. Attorneys who were told to clean out their offices on Friday, the White House has nominated a grand total of zero prosecutors to fill these new vacancies.At this point, there’s no evidence to suggest we’re looking at a new “purge” scandal, 10 years after the first one. As longtime readers may recall, I obsessively covered the original U.S. Attorney controversy in 2007, after the Bush/Cheney White House fired several of its own prosecutors after they resisted pressure to bring politically motivated cases during the 2006 midterm elections.Friday’s developments, at least for now, appear different. But that doesn’t make the story benign.Why was Bahara told he could stay, only to be fired without explanation? And why in the world did the president want to speak directly to Bahara late Thursday?Did any of these prosecutors’ dismissals relate to ongoing cases the White House wants to derail? Did Trump act because Republican pundits told him to?Was Bahara part of a broader overhaul, or were 46 U.S. Attorneys dismissed to obscure the targeting of this one New York prosecutor? Why couldn’t this have been done in a more orderly and less chaotic way? Why did nearly four dozen U.S. Attorneys have to clean out their desks immediately?Why did Bahara tweet yesterday, “By the way, now I know what the Moreland Commission must have felt like”?I can appreciate the fact that when it comes to this White House, the number of ongoing controversies is starting to pile up, but these questions need answers.Postscript: In 2013, after the Obama administration imposed sanctions on a number of Russians, Vladimir Putin quickly announced that 18 Americans would no longer be able to enter Russia. Among the 18 was Preet Bharara, who prosecuted a Russian arms dealer.I haven’t seen any evidence that Trump fired Bharara because Putin has a problem with him, but under the circumstances, it seemed like a point worth mentioning.

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