New York journalists always pine for heroes and villains. A Manichean universe is a convenient one: good guys do good, bad guys do bad, and to the white knight goes the boldest headlines.
Preet Bharara was one of those New York knights. Since 2009, as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District, he carved out the highest profile for the office since Rudy Giuliani was dragging mobsters to justices while shamelessly plotting his first mayoral campaign. Bharara’s exit on Saturday was masterful. President Trump asked for his resignation, purging him and 45 other Barack Obama appointees across America. Bharara refused to quit. Trump fired him.
“WALKING TALL,” roared the front page of the Daily News Sunday. The commentariat agreed. Trump had slayed another saint.
The episode was illustrative of all that was alluring and infuriating about the tenure of every editor’s favorite U.S. attorney — and now every editor’s favorite pick for governor next year. A Time Magazine cover boy, Bharara pursued political corruption at all costs, admirably doing his best, unlike Trump, to drain a swamp. He won convictions of the all-powerful — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos — and secured an indictment of Joe Percoco, a man so close to Governor Andrew Cuomo that his father, Mario, regarded Joe as another son. There were lesser political figures who ended up under Bharara’s boot heel, like Malcolm Smith, a one-time Senate majority leader, State Senator Carl Kruger and Assemblyman Eric Stevenson.
Undoubtedly the state legislature and executive branch needed someone like Bharara to scare the living daylights out of it. As one of the most blatantly corrupt state capitals in America, Albany has always been a playpen for the shamelessly moneyed and well-wired to purchase favors. Legislators use campaign cash to buy pool covers and time with Tony Robbins. It’s that kind of place.
Yet Bharara’s tactics were never questioned enough, and his camera savvy, while appreciated by an adoring press, protected him from the scrutiny he deserved. Despite his reputation as some kind of Wall Street sheriff, he failed to hold accountable any of the heinous actors who precipitated the 2008 financial crash. His much-heralded insider trading convictions were overturned on appeal.
When Bharara went on the prowl, he was far from scrupulous. His office repeatedly leaked details of his investigations to the media, building his cases there long before his targets even faced an arrest. In 2013, he leaked news of Smith’s impending arrest to the New York Post, and the tabloid splashed the pol’s face on their cover the same day he was handcuffed. A Post reporter was on hand to grill Smith’s co-conspirator, Councilman Dan Halloran, as he was led away from his home. Had the men gone to a newsstand early enough, they practically could have read about their arrests before they happened.
Weeks before Silver was arrested, we knew the minute details of the case Bharara was constructing against him, thanks to the New York Times. It’s difficult to imagine, given the circumstances, how a jury wasn’t going to convict Silver. The most important newspapers in the city were writing about the bad things this bad man allegedly did before he even showed up in a courtroom.
Imagine you’re innocent but Bharara decides you’re guilty. The moment you’re in his crosshairs, you’re dead. Before the indictment, before the trial, before the conviction — before it all, he can try you in the press. He wields titanic power and his office’s resources are enormous. If our justice system is predicated on innocence until guilt is proven, life in Bharara’s world indicates otherwise.
The federal judge who eventually sentenced Silver, Valerie Caproni, chastised Bharara for the “media blitz” he waged against him in 2015. “The U.S. attorney, while castigating politicians in Albany for playing fast and loose with the ethical rules that govern their conduct, strayed so close to the edge of the rules governing his own conduct that defendant Sheldon Silver has a nonfrivolous argument that he fell over the edge to the defendant’s prejudice,” she said.
Bharara’s pursuit of his other white whale, Mayor Bill de Blasio, reeked of this kind of overreach. Maybe de Blasio is guilty of the various pay-for-play charges Bharara’s office is desperately trying to bring. Maybe he deserves prison time.
But no defendant, powerful executive or no, deserves to be investigated for almost an entire year in the public eye without any charges leveled against him. Grand juries are supposed to be secret, yet somehow the Times knew in December that grand juries were hearing testimony over possible federal and state inquiries into de Blasio’s possible wrongdoing. The inquiries, the newspaper said, could “wrap up in a matter of weeks.” Alas, that was not the case.
It’s important to remember Bharara pushed the boundaries of his office further than most of his peers. He was known for his “speaking complaints,” describing crimes in almost novelistic fashion. Most prosecutors aren’t so verbose. To find yourself a character in a Bhararian plot is to know your career, regardless of ultimate guilt, is finished.
Consider the plight of the teens ensnared in Bharara’s much ballyhooed gang sweeps. These sprawling takedowns entangle innocent bystanders and violent gang leaders alike. Specious evidence, like Facebook and Instagram posts, are used against them and they are pressured into taking plea deals. Black and brown men who are tangentially connected to gang members in their buildings are led away in handcuffs, their lives ruined.
Unlike Bharara, Paul Fishman, the New Jersey U.S. attorney, turned in his resignation to Trump without complaint. The prosecutor who won convictions of two former Chris Christie aides in the Bridgegate scandal, Fishman rarely leaked details of his investigations to the media, shunning the spotlight as he pursued game as big as any Bharara sought. The same held true for Loretta Lynch, who as the tight-lipped U.S. attorney for the Eastern District never made a spectacle of herself.
By investigating Republicans and Democrats, Bharara, reared in the Chuck Schumer academy of media relations, was portrayed as a man above the dirty business of politics, as the Times put in their laudatory summation of his career. In fact, Bharara conducted himself just like the talented politician he was, knowing that to quietly turn in his resignation to Trump was not the way get retweeted 64,000 times (and counting).
Bharara defenders will say Trump went back on his word, since — at least according to Schumer — Trump promised Bharara he could remain in his post indefinitely. Trump never said this publicly, so we’ll have to trust Schumer and his protégé. We’ll also have reason to worry because Bharara was investigating how Fox News settled with the women Roger Ailes sexually harassed and Trump may be thinking about replacing Bharara with Ailes’ personal lawyer.
Now Bharara rides off into the sunset, glowing editorials at his back. He can dream bigger dreams, like a shot at Cuomo when he trudges to re-election next year. Whatever adventure he chooses next, he knows he’ll have an adoring media at his side, ready to pounce on anyone who sullies the white knight’s armor.