As U.S. Attorney, his office successfully tried 85 insider trading cases before losing its first in 2014. Bharara’s office reached major settlements with big banks including Citibank and JPMorgan Chase.
NEW YORK – The Manhattan federal prosecutor fired by President Trump said Wednesday he believes the commander in chief eventually would have asked him to do “something inappropriate.”
Preet Bharara described a series of unusual interactions with Trump before he was fired as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York in March. He said they were so unprecedented he considered but decided against recording a conversation with the president that ultimately never took place. In an account of his controversial firing in his new weekly podcast, Bharara described how he repeatedly flagged to Justice Department officials the impropriety of a president calling him directly.
While Bharara said Trump seemed to be calling to simply “chit-chat,” he also voices concern about what would have happened if he kept his job.
“Had I not been fired, and had Donald Trump continued to cultivate a direct personal relationship with me, it’s my strong belief, that at some point, given the history, the president of the United States would have asked me to do something inappropriate, and I would have resigned then,” said Bharara. “I don’t know that for a fact. But that’s my strong belief.”
Bharara offered the most extensive public account yet of his firing in the first episode of “Stay Tuned with Preet.”
In a podcast installment aptly titled “That Time President Trump Fired Me,” the 48-year-old attorney said he did not know the exact reason for his dismissal.
Yet Bharara’s account offers a window into the way he said Trump — who is under investigation by a special counsel for possible obstruction of justice — has approached relationships with senior law enforcement officials.
Here’s the timeline, according to Bharara.
On Nov. 8, when Trump won the presidential election, Bharara said he started making his “bucket list.” New presidents usually dismiss U.S. attorneys from previous administrations, because the jobs are political appointments.
Yet eight days later, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., his former boss, called to tell him Trump liked him, and wanted to meet him. On Nov. 30, Bharara traveled uptown from his Lower Manhattan office to Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, where Trump asked him to stay. At one point, Trump pushed a yellow Post-it pad across his desk, and asked him to put his phone numbers on it, said Bharara.
“It was odd because, as a general matter, presidents don’t speak to United States attorneys,” Bharara said.
On Dec. 12, when Bharara was touring a Riker’s Island jail, Trump called him. He chose to return the call, but told the Department of Justice’s transition team — tasked with assisting the incoming administration — that he thought direct and casual phone calls with the president-elect would not be “the greatest thing in the world.” Trump called again on January 18 before the inauguration. This time, he just wanted to “shoot the breeze,” said Bharara, who accepted the call, but also briefed associates about it.
Yet when Trump sought to speak with him again in March, Bharara said the circumstances were different. Trump was now the president. “I presume lay people would think, ‘He’s kind of your boss. He asked you to stay. You serve at the pleasure of the president. Why not just call him back?’” Bharara said. That’s not how it works at the Justice Department, he said, where it’s important to have “not just independence, but the appearance of independence, and if something is happening behind the scenes … it can look terrible.”
Bharara said he wondered whether Trump was mindful of former U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch’s private meeting with former president Bill Clinton while his wife, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, was under criminal investigation for using a private email server while secretary of State. Trump was among those who criticized the meeting.
Bharara said he and his deputy, now acting Manhattan Attorney General Joon Kim, considered whether to call Trump back but record the call, but decided that would be “a bridge too far.” They also considered, but ruled out, having someone listen in on the call. Bharara called Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ chief of staff, Jody Hunt, who agreed Bharara should not speak with Trump.
Instead, Bharara called the White House and explained to a presidential assistant why he felt he should not speak directly with Trump. He also wrote a personal memo about the incident.
“It’s not an easy thing not to call back the president of the United States,” said Bharara. “I didn’t snub the phone call lightly.”
Some 20 hours later, on March 11, he was asked to resign.
“I don’t know if those two events are connected,” said Bharara. “We may never know, but the timing is pretty odd.”
Bharara said that Trump’s history of unusual interactions with law enforcement officials raises questions about the motive behind his calls.
Former FBI director James Comey has said Trump pressed him to end the federal investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump has denied that contention. After Trump abruptly fired Comey in May, the Justice Department named former FBI director Robert Mueller to head the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion with Trump associates.
Bharara, in his podcast, referenced reports that the president also asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the spring to drop a federal case against ex-Arizona sheriff Joseph Arpaio.
Sessions did not intervene. Trump in August pardoned Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt in connection with a long-running racial profiling lawsuit, without conducting the normal review process.
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Follow USA TODAY reporter Kevin McCoy on Twitter: @kmccoynyc
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