Days after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, he summoned Preet Bharara to Trump Tower. The president-elect wanted to talk to the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York about his future.
Afterward, Bharara — one of the most influential prosecutors in the country, best known for going after Wall Street as well as members of both political parties — told reporters he’d been asked whether he wanted to stay on.
“The President-elect asked, presumably because he’s a New Yorker and is aware of the great work that our office has done over the past seven years, asked to meet with me to discuss whether or not I’d be prepared to stay on as the United States attorney to do the work as we have done it, independently, without fear or favor, for the last seven years,” Bharara said in a brief statement to reporters after meeting with Trump.
Three months later, Bharara is suddenly out of a job, part of an ouster of 46 U.S. attorneys appointed by President Barack Obama.
Bharara was fired after he refused to tender his resignation.
It was an abrupt end to Bharara’s nearly-eight-year tenure prosecuting powerful people in finance and politics.
In 2015, The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins described Bharara as “the most powerful prosecutor in the country” for whom “no target is apparently too big.” Bharara also had developed a reputation for wit and outspokenness; FBI director James B. Comey said the impression he gave was “if Jon Stewart was a prosecutor.”
Bharara’s style drew appreciation from some legal scholars but also reprimands from others for “showboating,” as Jenkins reported:
Once, Bharara opened a speaking engagement before a roomful of financial traders by saying, “I just want to apologize in advance that I don’t have enough subpoenas for all of you.” As the audience broke out in laughter, he said, “I’m just kidding.” Pause. “I do have enough.”
During his tenure, Bharara has indicted 17 prominent New York politicians for malfeasance — 10 of them Democrats, Jenkins reported. He also investigated New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo after he closed an ethics commission.
In 2012, he was named one of Time Magazine’s most influential people. The write-up was penned by Viet Dinh, a conservative legal scholar and an old buddy of Bharara’s:
Without drama, his Manhattan team has battled terrorism, convicting the Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad; crippled international criminal networks run by Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, Jamaican drug trafficker Christopher Coke and Colombian rebel group FARC; and in March secured a half-billion-dollar forfeiture from computer contractor SAIC in the biggest fraud ever against New York City. Those are good cases well prosecuted.
Bharara was an outspoken man in a job that has been held by vocal and politically aspirant predecessors, including former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Comey.
Along with his bipartisan prosecutions, Bharara developed a reputation for being tough on insider trading, although he was criticized for the lack of prosecutions that followed the financial crisis. Bharara defended himself, saying it was far harder to jail independent business executives because they had consulted attorneys every step of the way.
“It is a very difficult thing to put a person in jail when they say ‘I asked my lawyers to do the best they could and tell me what I’m supposed to do and they are independent and they were paid a fee,’” Bharara said in 2014, according to TheStreet. “So those are among the various obstacles you have.”
By then, more than a few publications were pondering Bharara’s ambitions for higher office. Bharara insisted he had none — and in many other interviews had given every indication that he intended to stay in prosecution for the long haul. In the early days of the presidential primary race, Bharara told CNBC he would do his job “forever if I could.”
“I mean, look — I care about public service. I care about honest government,” Bharara told MSNBC’s Ari Melber in 2015. “I’m a prosecutor. I’m a lawyer. This is what I plan to do for a long time.”
He also half-jokingly told Melber that it took some time for his parents, who immigrated to the United States from India “with nothing,” to appreciate his new job.
“As I joked, they’ve finally gotten over the fact that their Indian American son didn’t become a doctor,” Bharara told Melber. “But it took, you know, doing all of this before they finally realized, ‘Okay, I guess it’s not a bad gig.’”
Although Bharara’s future political aspirations remain unclear, one thing is certain — the former U.S. attorney won’t be able to become president.
Bharara was born in Firozpur, in Punjab, India, and migrated with his family to the United States as a toddler. His father moved the family to Buffalo after he was granted a fellowship to practice medicine, according to the New Yorker. They eventually settled in New Jersey, and Bharara went on to attend Harvard, then Columbia Law School.
His Indian heritage made him a unique target for critics, who called him out for arresting and charging Indian nationals.
As Jenkins noted, Bharara’s heritage did not prevent him from arresting and charging India’s deputy consul general, Devyani Khobragade, for mistreatment of a domestic worker.
Indian diplomats reacted with outrage, calling him a “self-loathing” traitor to his heritage, and an embarrassed State Department had to bail out Khobragade with diplomatic immunity.
“Everyone should understand that our motivation is always to do the right thing, and we don’t pull our punches, and we don’t care who you are,” Bharara says, unapologetically.
Bharara told NPR that “a lot of people in the country of my birth, for whatever reason, began to think that it was something having to do with me personally, even though had they inquired a little bit, would have discovered that this office brings cases based on the facts and the law. And it doesn’t matter, you know, who you are and what you look like and where you’re from.”
His own parents, he once told Melber, “wouldn’t talk explicitly about public service, when we were growing up. But it was very clear that they thought it was important to give back. And maybe it’s, you know, common for immigrant families who got so much from America that they think that.”