Abrupt dismissals rile some federal prosecutors
Purge not expected to have a major impact on cases.
Two days WASHINGTON — before Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered dozens of the country’s top federal prosecutors to clean out their desks, he gave those political appointees a pep talk during a conference call.
The seemingly abrupt about-face Friday left the affected U.S. attorneys scrambling to brief the people left behind and say goodbye to colleagues. It also could have an impact on morale for the career prosecutors who now must pick up the slack, accord- ing to some close to the process. The quick exits aren’t expected to have a major impact on ongoing prosecutions, but they gave U.S. attorneys little time to prepare deputies who will take over until successors are named.
“It’s very, very gut-level reaction,” said Steven Schle- icher, a former prosecutor who left Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger’s office in January and was still in con- tact with people there.
The request for resigna- tions from the 46 prosecutors who were holdovers from the Obama administration wasn’t shocking. It’s fairly customary for the 93 U.S. attorneys to leave their posts once a new president is in office, and many had already left or were making plans for their departures. Sessions himself was asked to resign as a U.S. attorney in a similar purge by Attorney General Janet Reno in 1993.
But the abrupt nature of the dismissals — done with little explanation and not always with the customary thanks for years of service — stunned and angered some of those left behind in offices around the country.
Fo r mer prosecutors, friends and colleagues imme- diately started reaching out to each other on a growing email chain to express condolences and support, com- miserating about how unfair they felt the situation was.
Some of those ousted were longtime prosecutors who had spent their careers com- ing up through the ranks of the Justice Department.
“All of these U.S. attorneys know they serve at the pleasure of the president. No one complains about that,” said John Walsh, an Obama-era appointee as U.S. attorney in Colorado who resigned in July. “But it was handled in a way that was disrespectful to the U.S. attorneys because they were almost treated as though they had done some- thing wrong, when in fact they had not.”
Peter Neronha, who had served since 2009 as U.S. attorney for Rhode Island, said even before Friday he had been preparing for his even- tual departure and had writ- ten a resignation statement to be released upon his exit. Whenever there’s a change in presidential administration, he said, “I think it would be unwise not to be ready.”
It’s not clear why the Justice Department asked the prose- cutors to exit so quickly. Sessions gave no warning during the Wednesday conference call in which he articulated his agenda for fighting vio- lent crime.
Much of the public attention since Friday has focused on Preet Bharara, the Manhattan federal prosecutor who said he was fired despite meeting with then-President-elect Donald Trump and saying he was asked to remain.
Trump did apparently make an attempt to speak with Bharara in advance of the Friday demand for resignations. The president reached out through a secretary on his staff to Bhar- ara a day earlier but the two men never spoke, according to a person told about the conversation but who requested anonymity. The White House on Sunday said the president reached out to thank Bharara for his service and to wish him good luck.
On Sunday, some Demo- crats condemned the demand for resignations in highly par- tisan comments. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Over- sight Committee, suggested Trump might have fired Bha- rara to thwart a potential corruption investigation, and believed the move added to a lack of trust of the admin- istration.
Two days before Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave dozens of the country’s top federal prosecutors just hours to resign and clean out their desks, he spoke with them in a conference call but reportedly did not hint at what was coming.