Preet Bharara, left, in 2014. Photo courtesy the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In the more than seven years that Preet Bharara served as U.S. attorney for the Manhattan-based Southern District of New York, he never felt the need to speak out as a private individual on Twitter.
That changed just a few weeks ago. The now-departed lawman’s abrupt shift in social media strategy may help explain his seemingly bizarre behavior over the weekend. The personal account @PreetBharara was established in February, and subsequently verified by Twitter as authentically belonging to Bharara. His first tweet (offering the prescient advice, “Stay tuned...”) was dated March 3.
Within a week, Bharara was among 46 holdover U.S. attorneys who were asked by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to tender their resignations. This has long been customary at the start of a new presidential administration. But Bharara, alone among the 46 – alone, in fact, in recent memory for U.S. attorneys in similar circumstances – refused to resign. And just like former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, another recalcitrant Obama holdover in the Justice Department, Bharara was fired within hours.
So why did he do it? Every U.S. attorney serves at the pleasure of the president, and Bharara – who may be an egotist but is certainly not an idiot – knew that this was a fight he had no earthly chance to win. He had been angling to keep his job since shortly after Trump’s election, announcing after a meeting with the then-president-elect at Trump Tower: “I said I would absolutely consider staying on. I agreed to stay on.” Tellingly, the statement was not repeated publicly by anyone in the transition team or the administration, leaving the impression that Bharara believed he was doing the incoming president a favor by not resigning, as about half his peers did before last weekend.
Maybe he just privately subscribes to the slogan that Trump is “not [his] president” and didn’t believe in his heart that the president could or would dare to dismiss someone as important as Bharara apparently believes himself to be.
Maybe he truly believes in his own indispensability. Lots of powerful people come to believe this about themselves. As the saying goes, the cemeteries are full of indispensable men (and women).
None of the above theories explain Bharara’s newfound interest in expressing himself on Twitter, however, which is one reason I don’t subscribe to any of them. Instead, I would look to Trump’s Twitter-fostered political rise and to the New York political calendar. I think that is where we can find the real answer.
This year New York City is involved in a mayoral race. No credible challenger has emerged to incumbent Democrat Bill de Blasio, but Bharara is in the midst of investigating the mayor’s political fundraising. A run against de Blasio is improbable, but Bharara was in a position to play kingmaker or spoiler depending on the outcome of that probe – or would have been, had he held on to his job for at least the next six or eight months. The Wall Street Journal reported that the investigation will likely continue, at least for now, but Bharara will no longer be able to take credit for the outcome.
Behind the New York City mayoral race loom the 2018 races for New York state governor and attorney general. Bharara’s position as U.S. attorney would have ideally situated him for a run for either post, depending on whether incumbents Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman vacate their positions or try to move on. Assuming they both run for re-election, Bharara still could have credibly challenged either, and he has compiled a record on which to run. Despite lip service from both Schneiderman and Cuomo about trying to clean up Albany’s political culture, it was Bharara who won convictions against the bosses of both houses of the Legislature, and thus has the stronger claim to the crusader mantle.
Overall, Bharara probably counts as an above-average performer by the (low) standards of the Obama Justice Department and a much-above-average publicity seeker who could use the Manhattan platform to launch a political career. His record on nonpolitical cases is mixed. Like the rest of Obama’s lawmen, he aggressively shook down financial institutions and other companies for cash settlements for alleged misdeeds without, for the most part, bothering to go to court to try to prove that anyone at those companies knowingly committed any crime. He developed a stronger record in prosecuting insider trading cases, albeit by pushing the envelope so far that the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals famously tossed out two of his most prominent convictions in United States v. Newman. (The U.S. Supreme Court later rejected part of the Second Circuit’s reasoning in Salman v. United States, a move that Bharara was quick to praise.)
So Bharara is gone from his U.S. attorney post, but I am pretty sure we have not heard the last of him. Twitter will probably see to that.