Preet Bharara likes to joke about locking people up. Last night, during a valedictory address at Cooper Union, he lamented that he showed up at an event “where I can’t arrest anyone.” There was laughter, as there usually is when the former U.S. Attorney wisecracks. None of the people giggling probably knew what it was like to be handcuffed and paraded in front of a jury, after all.
The one-liners kept coming. “It has been about three and a half weeks or so since I was fired,” Bharara said. “For those of you who were expecting me to be in a David Letterman–style unemployment beard, I’m sorry to disappoint you. I was made to shave it this morning.”
The meat of his address, the first since he was indeed fired by President Donald Trump after refusing to resign, was his reaffirmation that he won’t run for political office. If this was a disappointment to the various pundits and editorial board members begging their white knight to dethrone baddies like Mayor Bill de Blasio or Governor Andrew Cuomo, Bharara seemed aware of it.
His address packed Cooper Union and drew a standing ovation, but it served little purpose. Bharara knows deep down he has a steep climb to political office, what with few people actually knowing his name. He knows, too, that the pay is quite poor compared to what a celebrated ex-prosecutor can make on the white-shoe circuit. He knows that he’s running out of opportunities to command public attention; if he’s going to be irrelevant, he might as well be rich.
It’s worth noting the speech was scheduled before Trump decided to invoke the privilege every president gets to dump his predecessor’s prosecutors. Originally, Bharara had planned to do what he had always done: opine on a political and legal system he gleefully investigated for eight years. There was the time he mocked how state lawmakers and the governor hash out a budget; there was the time he told a roomful of financial traders that he had enough subpoenas for everyone.
While “innocent until proven guilty” is a concept allegedly baked into our criminal justice system, the reality shows otherwise, as Bharara understands. It’s enough to simply wield the vast powers of your office to investigate or charge or indict — the rest of it amounts to semantics, especially after a particularly captivating press conference.
Last night, Bharara took another dig at Cuomo for prematurely shuttering an anti-corruption panel that the governor created, implying once more he was probably guilty of something. This has become something of a Bharara obsession: He probed the Moreland Commission relentlessly before realizing, sadly, there was no corruption charge to bring since the whole enterprise was Cuomo’s toy to begin with. That hasn’t stopped Bharara from tweeting about the Moreland Commission and referencing it incessantly — and cheekily — in public remarks. Never mind the investigation into Cuomo himself went nowhere (though it eventually felled Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos).
As Bharara ticked through his accomplishments, the list served as a reminder that he had done plenty and should be commended for focusing on public corruption that other prosecutors ignored. It also served as an opportunity to dredge up a canard promoted in the press and fully embraced by Bharara — that because he investigated Republicans and Democrats alike, this put him “above” politics, where he occupied the rarefied strata of a god rendering judgment on mortals below.
What Bharara practiced was the definition of politics. He leaked key details of investigations to the major New York newspapers, allowing him to build his cases long before his targets were even indicted. He told one newspaper arrests were imminent and allowed it to run a front-page story before the arrests happened. He unveiled complaints so lush and novelistic in detail — so far beyond what the ordinary prosecutor would do — that he caused weeks of unflattering coverage for the politicians he intended to bring down. Whether he converts this brand of prosecutorial politics to elected politics has always been beside the point.