Preet Bharara, former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks to a standing room only crowd at Cooper Union on April 6. (David Handschuh/ALM)
Preet Bharara said he refused to resign when asked to do so last month to make sure the record reflected that President Donald Trump changed his mind and decided to fire him as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Speaking at Cooper Union Thursday evening in his first public speech since March 11 when he departed the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, he said he did not know the reason for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ resignation demand and Trump’s decision to force him out.
While it is customary for incoming presidents to ask sitting U.S. Attorneys to leave, Bharara had met with Trump following the election and said after he emerged from Trump Tower that the president had told him to stay put for the time being.
When asked during a question and answer session following the speech why he was fired, he replied with a shrug: “Beats the hell out of me.” But he said that he declined to submit his resignation because he wanted “the record to reflect for all time” that Trump changed his mind on keeping Bharara in the office.
“I’m not making any accusations against anyone but I’ve lived long enough to know that you want the record to be clear,” he said.
Bharara’s address attracted an audience of several hundred, including Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim.
The Southern District U.S. Attorney’s office under Bharara was known for its aggressive prosecution of both white-collar criminals—specifically cases involving insider trading—and political corruption, securing convictions against former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican.
Bharara expressed doubts about the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year in McDonnell v. United States, No. 15-474, in which the high court vacated corruption convictions against former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and effectively narrowed the type of conduct that could be considered an “official act” under federal bribery statutes.
The ruling, Bharara said, could allow “people to get away” with conduct that the average citizen would like to see criminalized. Some worried that the “Supreme Court was being naive about how power is actually exercised,” he said.
“If you’re going to prove it in the court of law it ties the hands of some prosecutors,” he said.
While he did highlight several of the victories his office achieved during his tenure, including terrorism and consumer fraud cases, he stressed he has no plans to seek public office. Since the firing, Bharara’s name has been floated as a possibility for governor of New York.
“I have no plans to enter politics, just like I have no plans to join the circus,” Bharara said.
He mostly kept the tone light and drew frequent laughs from the audience, including when he took tongue-in-cheek jabs at the Trump administration.
He recognized press staffers from the Southern District U.S. Attorney’s office who were in attendance, saying they acted as a buffer between him and the “dishonest media,” and joked that his sold-out speech drew up to 1.5 million people, referring to a kerfuffle over the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd.
Prior to his speech, he gave one media interview to The New York Times for a story published hours before he spoke.
But Bharara did not disappear from the limelight entirely after his firing. He has been active on Twitter, where he announced his firing and where he has occasionally taken swipes at political leaders.
“By the way, now I know what the Moreland Commission must have felt like,” he tweeted after he was fired, a reference to a committee that Gov. Andrew Cuomo assembled in 2013 to investigate ethics violations in state government and disbanded less than a year later.
Additionally, he’s taken a post with the New York University School of Law as a distinguished scholar in residence.
Before becoming a federal prosecutor, Bharara served as counsel to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and during that time led an investigation into firings of U.S. Attorneys during the administration of President George W. Bush that had been seen as politically motivated.
Marc Mukasey of Greenberg Traurig, the son of former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, is reportedly on the short-list of nominees to succeed Bharara.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the possible contenders also include Edward McNally of Kasowitz Benson and Edward O’Callaghan of Clifford Chance.