Reclaiming “You’re Fired”

<i>I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired. Being the US Attorney in SDNY will forever be the greatest honor of my professional life.” (@PreetBharara, tweeted at 11:29 AM, March 11)

Preet Bharara was born in Firozpur, Punjab, India in 1968, immigrating with his Sikh father and Hindu mother to New Jersey in 1970. A precocious youth, Bharara graduated valedictorian of his high school and magna cum laude at Harvard, attaining a J.D. at Columbia afterward. He worked for a short while in private practice, and then served as an Assistant United States Attorney in Manhattan for five years. In 2009, Barack Obama nominated him for the position of US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which encompassed eight state counties including Manhattan and the Bronx. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. As United States Attorney, Bharara oversaw all the investigation and litigation cases brought on within his district. Bharara’s stellar and unblemished career trajectory became crucial in establishing his later moniker as “The Man Who Terrifies Wall Street.”

As the chief federal law officer of a large swath of New York City, Bharara became nationally prominent for relentlessly pursuing Wall Street corporations and public officials, eventually becoming labeled as the man “Busting Wall Street” by TIME magazine. Bharara pursued insider trading charges against Stephen Cohen and his SAC Capital Advisors LP, settling for a record $1.8 billion. He also pursued investigations into eleven-term New York Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver on charges of taking payoffs, leading to Silver’s eventual conviction and arrest. The Civil Frauds Unit, which was created under Bharara’s leadership, has collected approximately $500 million in settlements, including immense settlements with giants such as Deutsche Bank and CitiMortgage. In a New York climate still rattled by the 2008 stock market crash, Bharara and his crackdown on white collar crime appeared to be a saving grace. However, Bharara’s towering figure in Manhattan would lead to a political clash with the Trump administration.

Bharara’s fame consequently skyrocketed in the national consciousness and he began to appear on lists such as Bloomberg’s 2012 “50 Most Influential People” as well as Vanity Fair’s 2013 “New Establishment.” It was in this milieu of celebrity that Bharara met with Trump and then-attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions at Trump Tower in November 2016, where both Trump and Sessions promised to allow him to stay on as US Attorney past Trump’s inauguration. Historically, US Attorney’s have resigned with new incoming presidents, but due to the alignment of Bharara’s fame and Trump’s anti-corruption campaign rallying against Wall Street, it appeared that Bharara would continue to have license to prosecute big money crime.

On March 11, Bharara publicly stated that he had been fired by Dana Boente, the acting attorney general. The executive order also applied to 45 other US Attorneys, all holdovers from the Obama administration. However, the legitimacy of Bharara’s claims that he was verbatim “fired” have been raised into question: An official familiar with the incident reported that deputy attorney general Dana Boente never said the words “you’re fired.” In a convoluted sequence of events, Boente told Bharara that he needed to resign, to which Bharara responded in denial. Boente again told Bharara that he needed to resign, saying that Trump was firing him, to which Bharara responded by saying that the president reaching out to him was a breach of protocol (there are rules against US Attorneys talking to presidents). Boente then sent a message to 46 US Attorneys asking for their resignation, Bharara included. In a muddled sequence of events, Bharara appeared to have resigned; thus his public statement saying that he was fired requires closer scrutiny.

Bharara’s tweet, which clearly stated that “I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired” becomes instrumental in constructing his post-tenure identity. Because of the unguarded nature of social media, Bharara adeptly used Twitter to advance his national image in the Trump era; he painted himself not as a helpless victim, but as an ardent martyr who fought to his last breath. Bharara’s wading into the grey areas of truth have allowed him, to a degree, to politically grandstand and garner national media attention as a rebellious hero, although 45 other US Attorney holdovers from the Obama administration were let go in the same way. As his last hurrah as US Attorney, Bharara was depicted leaving office to the raucous applause of 200 Assistant US Attorneys and staffers, revealing an adulation in the aftermath of a conventionally shameful act – being fired.

Preet Bharara deftly utilized the connotative baggage behind his “firing” to increase his personal political capital, reclaiming the rhetorical flagrancy of the Trump administration to foster both a personal and collective resistance.

The difference between being “fired” versus being forced to resign is both rhetorically and substantively vast, especially for a public official like Bharara. Ironically, Bharara being fired by the Trump administration pushes political chess pieces more in Bharara’s favor than in Trump’s. Bharara, already revered in the eyes of New Yorkers, has reclaimed “you’re fired” as an honorous emblem from the national symbol of “you’re fired!” himself: Donald Trump, who had popularized its rhetorical use during his days on the reality TV show The Apprentice. By leaving his office to widespread approval, especially after having served a Manhattan area that voted almost 90 percent for Hillary Clinton, Bharara can now wear the badge of “being fired by Donald Trump” proudly on his chest, inheriting a strong political grounding for any of his future endeavors. Overall, Preet Bharara deftly utilized the connotative baggage behind his “firing” to increase his personal political capital, reclaiming the rhetorical flagrancy of the Trump administration to foster both a personal and collective resistance.

@therealdonaldtrump talked a big game about getting corruption out of gov. But he wants a bunch of tame prosecutors who won’t prosecute him.(@SenWarren, tweeted at 7:43 AM, March 12)

Trump’s bait and switch regarding Bharara and his political appointment reeked of fear on the part of the president. After Bharara was forced to leave his post, several ongoing investigations Bharara had launched were brought to light, like his investigation into the ethics of Trump Tower, his investigation into the stock trading of the Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and his deep connection to New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who has led the opposition to Trump. To aggravate Trump even further, Bharara was also probing Fox News’s response to the sexual harassment scandal that led to the resignation of its longtime CEO Roger Ailes. As more and more of these scandals are brought to light, Bharara’s legend and popularity will continue to grow in New York; he will continue to be elevated on a political pedestal with each forthcoming scandal investigation. Overall, Bharara simply became too serious of a threat to Trump, and he was subsequently removed, as the fervent anti-Wall Street railing of Trump’s presidential campaign had been lost to the gutters long before. Ironically, the firing of Bharara escalated exactly what Trump had hoped to subvert, and may even contain ramifications beyond Bharara’s own political persona: Investigations against the Trump Administration may ramp up as the stakes have gotten higher.

By the way, now I know what the Moreland Commission must have felt like.(@PreetBharara, tweeted at 11:57 AM, March 12)

The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was a public entity created by then-governor Andrew Cuomo in July 2013, created to investigate public officials in New York in response to state laws regarding fundraising, elections, and campaigns. Cuomo abruptly dissolved the commission in March 2014 after integrating a modest package of ethics reforms into the state budget. Cuomo’s actions were criticized by many, including Bharara himself, and Cuomo’s interference and restrictions on the budget were censured. Cuomo himself stated: “It’s my commission. My subpoena power, my Moreland commission. I can appoint it, I can disband it. I appoint you, I can un-appoint you tomorrow.” Preet Bharara, unsatisfied with the entire ordeal, launched an investigation into Cuomo’s dissolution that formally ended in January 2016. Bharara, by comparing his personal situation to that of the Moreland Commission, may, in fact, be intimating that he and his team were investigating the activities of Trump himself.

The historical context runs much deeper than just the Moreland Commission – Bharara’s political career has so far run parallel to that of Robert Morgenthau, who was chosen by John F. Kennedy to become the New York Southern District US Attorney in 1961. Morgenthau, just like Bharara, refused to resign after Nixon became president in 1969, stating that he had “vendettas to settle,” and instead stayed on for an extra year until he was ordered to leave or be fired. The next year, Morgenthau ran for the Democratic nomination for Governor of New York, but dropped out within weeks due to poor fundraising. Bharara, who wields political capital on a level that Morgenthau never had, may well be able to propel his way into higher government offices.

In a 2014 interview with the New York Times, Preet Bharara asserted: “I have no interest and desire to seek political election, now or ever.” He reasserted this sentiment in a statement on the Saturday following his removal, saying that “absolute independence” was “my touchstone every day that I served.” Following the historical tradition of past US Attorneys of the Southern District of New York like Rudy Giuliani (former mayor of New York City), Mary Jo White (former Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission), James Comey (director of the FBI), and the aforementioned Robert Morgenthau, the chances are strong that Bharara breaks this “absolute independence” and runs as an elected official or as a key federal government leader.

According to former Wall Street Executive and current financial writer William Cohan, Bharara may be setting his sights on the New York Senate race coming up in 2017 and the New York Governor’s race coming up in 2018, and furthermore, the campaign timing is perfect for Preet Bharara to utilize all the eminence he gathered to pursue an elected position. Overall, as someone who was just “fired” by Donald Trump himself to critical acclaim in a state heavily leaning left, Bharara has masterfully acquired the political tools needed to further his political career. How he uses those tools is all we have left to see.