Preet Bharara’s ‘weird and peculiar’ déjà vu

     Former United States Attorney General for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara arrives before former FBI Director James Comey testifies at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

    Former United States Attorney General for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara arrives before former FBI Director James Comey testifies at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

    Before James Comey, there was Preet Bharara. It’s good to be reminded.

    The former U.S. Attorney for New York’s Southern District (notably Manhattan) was fired by Trump on March 11; at the time of his firing, Bharara was reportedly investigating Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price, who, in his previous life as a congressman, had bought and sold health-care stocks while voting on legislation affecting those stocks. Trump had phoned Bharara on March 9 — a highly inappropriate move — and Bharara, after consulting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ office, had refused to take the call.

    Is that why Bharara, a prominent corruption-buster who’d successfully targeted sleazebags in both parties, was summarily dumped by Trump — despite Trump’s promise last November that he’d get to keep his job? “To this day I have no idea why I was fired,” he said yesterday in his first sitdown interview since the dumping. Nevertheless, he shed fresh light on Trump’s instinctive determination to bend law-enforcement leaders to his authoritarian will. Sally Yates and Comey have prominent company.

    Bharara was in the room last Thursday when Comey testified under oath that Trump had hustled him to drop the Michael Flynn probe; yesterday on ABC News, Bharara said: “It’s an incredibly serious thing if people think that the president of the United States can tell heads of law enforcement agencies, based on his own whim or his own personal preferences or friendships, that they should or should not pursue particular criminal cases against individuals. That’s not how America works.”

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    But that’s clearly how Trumplandia works, because last winter Bharara got a whiff of that same corruptive behavior. Trump’s repeated contacts with Comey, he said, “felt a little bit like deja vu,” further evidence that Trump does not respect the independence of law-enforcement agencies. But let Bharara tell the tale:

    “The number of times that President Obama called me in seven and a half years was zero. The number of times I would have been expected to be called by the president of the United States would be zero, because there has to be some kind of arm’s length relationship, given the jurisdiction that [U.S attorneys] had.

    “So [Trump] called me in December, ostensibly just to shoot the breeze and asked me how I was doing and wanted to make sure I was OK. It was similar to what Jim Comey testified to … I didn’t say anything at the time to him. It was a little bit uncomfortable, but he was not the president, he was only the president-elect. He called me again two days before the inauguration, again seemingly to check in and shoot the breeze and then he called me a third time [March 9] after he became president and I refused to return the call …

    “In reporting the phone call to the chief of staff to the Attorney General I said it appeared to be that [Trump] was trying to cultivate some kind of relationship … It’s a very weird and peculiar thing for a one-on-one conversation without the Attorney General, without warning, between the president and me or any United States Attorney who has been asked to investigate various things and is in a position hypothetically to investigate business interests and associates of the president…

    “Now I’m not saying that he was going to ask me about a case, although (because of) the Jim Comey testimony, there’s some evidence that Donald Trump didn’t think anything of asking a high-level law enforcement official to take a particular action that he wanted for himself on a criminal case.”

    Naturally, Bharara was attacked yesterday by the denizens of Trump’s bunker. Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Trump personal attorney Marc Kasowitz, tweeted that Bharara deserved to be fired for refusing to return Trump’s March 9 call. Corallo said: “There is nothing abnormal with the executive speaking directly with his employes.”

    What Trump and his flunkies still fail to grasp is that he’s no longer running a private company, and that a U.S. attorney is not “his employe” like, say, a casino craps dealer or desk clerk. A federal attorney works for the country, swears loyalty to the Constitution, and gets paid by the people. Surely those reminders could be summarized on a single page for Trump’s perusal — perhaps etched in crayon. And most Americans would surely approve, given the fact that, in the latest Quinnipiac poll, 55 percent say he’s already “abusing the powers of his office.”

    And Bharara doesn’t buy Paul Ryan’s claim that Trump’s corruptive behavior stems from inexperience (Ryan says “he’s just new at this”). As Bharara pointed out yesterday, Trump voiced outraged on the ’16 campaign trail about Bill Clinton’s tarmac talk with Attorney General Loretta Lynch — “so he knew very well what the optics of that were and what the protocols were.”

    As for Trump’s Friday claim that he’s “100 percent” willing to testify under oath to special prosecutor Robert Mueller, Bharara basically shrugged it off — not because he didn’t believe Trump’s promise (although of course it’s just another con), but because it’s way too soon to even care what Trump would do. Here’s why:

    “I think the way you do any kind of investigation that involves somebody who is a high official is, you gather all the other evidence…And what you do is, you painfully and painstakingly gather evidence from as many witnesses as possible and documents and everything else – and at the end of that typically, then you interview the principal.”

    In other words, as Bharara well knows from his own tenure, Mueller will call Trump’s bluff only when he’s good and ready. We would welcome that day.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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