After Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked for the resignation of 46 U.S. attorneys last week, many urged for calm, noting that letting political appointees go in favor of new ones is a normal part of the transition.
Matthew Axelrod, the former principal associate deputy attorney general who left the Justice Department in late January along with his then boss, Sally Yates, argues otherwise. Axelrod criticized the administration’s move, which he said denies the new acting U.S. attorneys the lead time necessary for a smooth leadership change.
Prior to joining Main Justice in 2009, Axelrod spent six years as a federal prosecutor in Miami. He left the department briefly in 2014, landing at Cohen Milstein Seller & Toll as a partner, before rejoining in early 2015 to serve as Yates’ top deputy.
Here’s what Axelrod had to say about the resignations and his own transition into a dispute resolution practice at British firm Linklaters last week.
Q: Let’s start with the news of the day — Attorney General Jeff Sessions asked for the resignation of 46 Obama-era U.S. attorneys March 10. New York Southern District U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said he was fired March 11 after refusing to step down. Is this situation unusual?
Matthew Axelrod: It’s not unusual that U.S. attorneys would be asked to go. What’s so unusual, and I believe unprecedented, is that they were asked to clear out their desks by the end of the day. To my knowledge, that’s never happened in the past even though there have been occasions where presidents asked all the U.S. attorneys to resign.
This was an issue that was discussed during the transition. The transition team recommended to the incoming administration that they not get rid of the U.S. attorneys all at one time, and that recommendation was adopted. It’s not clear what changed and led the administration to get rid of everyone all at once. And doing it on such short notice really deprived the offices of the ability to have a smooth transition. That’s disruptive and was unnecessary.
Q: How is this different from previous transitions?
MA: It’s been handled differently in different administrations. When Bill Clinton became president, they asked everyone to resign, but it wasn’t by the end of the day. People were given a short pool of time — I believe it was a matter of weeks — to transition out. When [Barack] Obama became president, he didn’t do that and sort of allowed people to roll off as their replacements were named and confirmed.
The thing that’s so unusual here was the lack of notice and the immediacy of it, which deprives the U.S. attorney from having the customary weeks of planning meetings with their first assistant — the person who is going to take over — to be able to hand over the reins and sort of wrap things up and have an orderly transition. There’s no reason to ask these U.S. attorneys to go on the same day, and that’s the thing that’s sort of puzzling and unfortunate.
Q: You also recently left DOJ and joined a new firm. Why did you want to work at Linklaters?
MA: It’s a great opportunity. It’s a terrific global brand, really recognized worldwide for its top-quality lawyers and legal work. In the U.S., I wanted to help further strengthen and expand that brand.
For me, the ability to work with such a talented group of global lawyers, and global clients when those clients have problems in the U.S. and with U.S. regulators, was really attractive. Also, it’s a very collaborative and collegial atmosphere, which attracted me as well. And the opportunity to work with a former colleague and friend, Adam Lurie, who heads the D.C. office, was also attractive.
Q: What did you learn at the Justice Department that you’ll use in your new role?
MA: I would talk about it in two ways. The first is just substantively. I spent a number of years, 12 years in total, at the department. Particularly, because of my last two years helping the deputy attorney general run the place, I feel like I have a good grasp of how the department thinks about corporate criminal enforcement. I was involved in the development and implementation of the Yates memo. Also in my role, I reviewed every corporate resolution over $200 million. So I think I have a good substantive expertise about how the department thinks about these cases, and what it’s looking for when it looks to resolve these cases.
And then the second way I talk about it is, for the last two years, part of my job was dealing with the crisis management aspects of a client — it’s just my client was the Department of Justice. So I was helping to run a large institution and navigate it through challenges, or whatever the issues of the day might of been. And I actually think those skills will transfer really well to representing private sector clients, whether it’s companies or financial institutions or individuals that face similar challenges. And one of the things I learned is, I really like doing that. I like helping navigate institutions or individuals through really difficult, complex problems.
Q: What’s your advice for deputy attorney general nominee Rod Rosenstein or others joining the DAG’s office?
MA: I think it’s a very important office within the department — it’s the operational hub. And Rod is a longtime DOJ employee, so he knows his way around. One of the key things for the deputy’s office is, there’s so many things that come there, to make sure that the business keeps moving and that things don’t get bottled up there. Each of these topics ends up being complicated and difficult, otherwise it wouldn’t have ended up at the deputy’s office. So there can be a temptation to take a long period of time to wrestle with it and figure it out. But, I think it’s important to make decisions efficiently and quickly and keep the trains moving. I also think the deputy’s office plays an important role in making sure that the institutional interests of the Department of Justice are protected — that their work gets done independently, and free from any sort of interference.
Q: Do you have any advice for outside lawyers who interact with the office?
MA: It’s rare that defense attorneys have an audience in the deputy attorney general’s office — most cases get resolved well before that point. My advice on dealing with the deputy’s office is the same as dealing with any prosecutor: it’s just to advocate forcefully for your client but do so respectfully. Appealing to the prosecutor’s sense of fair play and justice usually seems to be the best strategy.