The Justice Department announced Friday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked all 46 remaining Obama administration U.S. attorneys across the country to submit their resignations immediately.
“As was the case in prior transitions, many of the United States attorneys nominated by the previous administration already have left the Department of Justice,” agency spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement. “The Attorney General has now asked the remaining 46 presidentially appointed U.S. attorneys to tender their resignations in order to ensure a uniform transition.”
Flores said that until new U.S. attorneys are confirmed, the career prosecutors in the nation’s 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices will oversee cases. No new U.S. attorneys have yet been nominated by the Trump administration.
Flores said the action is not unusual. A similar step was taken at the start of the Bill Clinton administration. Sessions himself was asked to resign as the U.S. attorney in Alabama in March 1993 by Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno.
But the George W. Bush administration eased U.S. attorneys out gradually while officials sought replacements, as did Barack Obama’s Justice Department.
Justice officials said they could not say whether Preet Bharara, the fiercely independent U.S. attorney in Manhattan, would be forced to resign. They said that the Justice announcement told all U.S. attorneys to “tender their resignations,” which means that Sessions could choose to keep some in place.
A spokesman for Bharara’s office declined to comment.
In November, Trump personally met with Bharara and asked him to stay on, as did Sessions. Bharara, who was born in India and brought to the United States as a child, heads one of the highest-profile U.S. attorney’s offices in the country.
“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 at Trump Tower in November.
“We had a good meeting,” Bharara said, adding, “I agreed to stay on. I have already spoken to Senator Sessions, who is as you know the nominee to be the attorney general. He also asked that I stay on, and so I expect that I will be continuing to work at the Southern District” of New York.
Yet on Friday, Bharara received the same call from the Justice Department as the other U.S. attorneys did, according to people familiar with the matter. Those people said acting deputy attorney general Dana Boente, who made the calls, told Bharara the Obama holdovers were being asked to leave. There was, however, some confusion as to whether the administration had specifically decided Bharara, despite the earlier conversations about staying on, should go.
A White House official said the president did not accept the resignation of Boente as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. Boente was made acting attorney general in January by Trump after he fired acting attorney general Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover, when she refused to defend his first executive order banning travel from some Muslim-majority nations. Boente became acting deputy attorney general when Sessions was confirmed and sworn in.
The president also did not accept the resignation of Maryland’s U.S. attorney, Rod Rosenstein, who has been nominated to take over as deputy attorney general but needs to win Senate confirmation, the official said.
Most of the resignation discussions were straightforward. Robert L. Capers, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said he was asked to resign. “It has been my greatest honor to serve my country, New York City and the people of this district for almost 14 years, with the last 17 months serving as United States attorney,’’ he said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that by asking for the immediate resignation of every remaining U.S. attorney before replacements have been nominated, “the president is interrupting ongoing cases and investigations and hindering the administration of justice.’’
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she had met with Vice President Pence and White House Counsel Donald McGahn in January and “asked specifically whether all U.S. attorneys would be fired at once. Mr. McGahn told me that the transition would be done in an orderly fashion to preserve continuity. Clearly this is not the case. I’m very concerned about the effect of this sudden and unexpected decision on federal law enforcement.”
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.