The Trump administration’s sweeping dismissal of dozens of US attorneys held over from the Obama administration leaves the president with sudden gaps in top law enforcement positions across the country.
The swift dismissals which began with Friday phone calls from Dana Boente, the acting deputy attorney-general, to 46 US attorneys, now puts pressure on the Trump administration to select candidates who will pass congressional scrutiny to fill the vacuum.
Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York refused to resign, forcing the administration to fire him, he revealed on Saturday. In a later statement, Mr Bharara said: “One hallmark of justice is absolute independence.”
In November Mr Bharara met with Mr Trump and told reporters he was asked to stay in the position generating confusion over the abrupt call for his resignation.
On Sunday, he stoked the fire around his ousting by adding in a tweet: “By the way, now I know what the Moreland Commission must have felt like.” The Moreland commission was set up by New York governor Andrew Cuomo to investigate corruption by state lawmakers but he then shut it down nine months later.
Mr Bharara opened a criminal investigation into whether Mr Cuomo’s office had interfered with the commission’s work and concluded there was no basis for criminal charges. The 14-word cryptic remark could be read to infer that Mr Bharara believes he was dismissed to stymie investigations related to the Trump campaign or organisation.
Three days before his dismissal, Mr Bharara received a letter from a government watchdog group requesting an investigation into whether the Trump organisation had received any payments from foreign governments that could violate a constitutional clause to protect against undue influence.
Mr Trump has not signalled who he will nominate to fill the position although the white collar defence bar is buzzing that a leading contender is Marc Mukasey, a former prosecutor and current law partner and friend of Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani. Mr Mukasey declined to comment Sunday.
The situation created an unusual stand-off between one of the nation’s highest-profile and independent prosecutors overseeing investigations of political corruption, corporate malfeasance and terrorism, and the Trump administration.
It is routine for presidents to make their own appointments to key enforcement positions, however Friday’s order to seek the resignations, effective immediately, caught off guard several Department of Justice officials.
The events reflect the chaotic tenor of the early days of the Trump administration, which has moved hastily at times, including the roll out of an executive order temporarily banning visas for travellers from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The house cleaning comes during a period of growing distrust between the administration and the intelligence community over leaks of national security matters, and at a time when there are calls for independent investigations into Trump campaign officials’ dealings with Russian government contacts during the election.
The DoJ, under Jeff Sessions, a former US attorney and senator of Alabama, is already embattled. Earlier this month Mr Sessions recused himself from investigations tied to the presidential campaign, after it was revealed that he failed to disclose two meetings with a Russian ambassador while he was in the senate.
In a statement Saturday, Sen Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and the most senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Mr Trump’s nominees “will have a high bar to prove they have the necessary courage and fidelity to the law, like [former acting attorney-general] Sally Yates, to say ‘no’ to a President who will need to hear it regularly.”
Mr Trump fired Ms Yates, an Obama administration appointee who was the acting attorney-general before Mr Sessions was confirmed, after she directed all federal prosecutors to not defend the initial travel ban in court saying she was not convinced it was “lawful.” A US appeals court later agreed with her.
Historically, the senior senator in each state makes recommendations for US attorney positions to the president, whose nominee must be confirmed by the Senate. In New York that falls to Charles Schumer, a big supporter of Mr Bharara, but whose relationship with Mr Trump has soured since inauguration.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, says, “Trump has yet to nominate anyone for the 93 offices in the US, so few will be confirmed before summer.”
Mr Mukasey, if nominated, is familiar with politics. His father is Michael Mukasey, a former US judge who the Bush administration brought in as attorney-general when Alberto Gonzales resigned following an investigation into the firings of several US attorneys.
For an office big on tradition, Mr Mukasey has the credentials. He joined after a few years at the Securities and Exchange Commission and over the following eight years prosecuted securities fraud cases and led its narcotics division. He left to join Mr Giuliani’s then firm, Bracewell Giuliani, and last year they both joined Greenberg Traurig.
More recently, he has represented Roger Ailes, the former Fox News executive facing sexual harassment claims by multiple former female employees. The Manhattan office is investigating whether 21st Century Fox properly accounted for undisclosed financial settlements it made to resolve claims against Mr Ailes. When Mr Ailes was forced to resign from Fox amid the controversy he began advising Mr Trump in the presidential debates.
Mr Mukasey does not fit the mould of many former prosecutors. He favours well-tailored pinstriped suits and is a gym junkie, according to several of his friends, with a pit bull personalty. He told The Daily Beast that the New York magazine reporter who had written several in-depth stories about claims of sexual harassment against Mr Ailes was “a virus, and is too small to exist on his own, and has obviously attached himself to the Ailes family to try to suck the life out of them.”