- File: Associated Press
- Preet Bharara
In March 2017, Preet Bharara received a simple request he felt he had to refuse: His boss, President Donald Trump, wanted to speak with him by phone.
As a U.S. attorney, Bharara wasn't supposed to communicate directly with the president. Such a conversation would be all the more inappropriate, Bharara reasoned, because he was the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan, where Trump's legally troubled business empire and charity were based.
The day after Bharara turned down the president's request, he and 45 other U.S. attorneys across the country were asked to resign. When Bharara refused, he was fired. Though it remains unclear what Trump had wanted to speak with him about, ProPublica has reported that the president's lawyer wanted Bharara out because he viewed the hard-charging prosecutor as a threat.
In the two and a half years since, the former prosecutor has become an unlikely media star and hero of the Trump resistance. His two podcasts, Stay Tuned With Preet and Café Insider, are hugely popular, and his latest book, Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment and the Rule of Law, is a best seller. The Showtime series "Billions" is loosely based on his prosecution of hedge fund manager Steve Cohen.
On Thursday, November 14, at 5 p.m., Bharara is scheduled to speak at the University of Vermont's Ira Allen Chapel as part of the George D. Aiken Lecture Series. Seven Days caught up with him in advance to press him on his views of the president, the rule of law and being a clue on "Jeopardy!"
SEVEN DAYS: You're coming to Burlington to participate in the George D. Aiken Lecture Series. You're also a former Senate staffer. What do you think Sen. Aiken, who retired in 1975, might make of the institution today?
PREET BHARARA: He retired at a time of great turmoil, where there were a lot of issues bubbling up in the country that required a return to fundamental principles like equal justice before the law, no man is above the law and that democratic institutions are more important than party and more important than any particular politician. So I wonder if he would, if he were around today, mutter to himself like Yogi Berra, "It's like déjà vu all over again."
SD: You were born in India and immigrated to the U.S. as a child — and then spent much of your career in public service. I wonder what you make of the recent attacks on the patriotism of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the Ukrainian American National Security Council staffer who testified last week in the House's impeachment inquiry?
PB: I find it disgusting. What I found interesting is that all these people who have come to testify, who have been longtime public servants — in almost every case, no evidence of partisanship, have served presidents of both parties — have felt the need to begin their opening statements with a long and strong recitation of their credentials. For example, with respect to Vindman, he begins by talking about his military service and how he was injured by an [improvised explosive device] in battle and how he received a Purple Heart and how he came to this country at 3 and a half and how he's a patriot.
You have to wonder, in part, are they doing that because they all have the expectation that even if they're coming forward in good faith, if they say something negative about this president, his allies are going to attack their patriotism, attack their integrity and make up lies about them? So I think it's terrible.
SD: There's a debate in Congress over whether to focus forthcoming articles of impeachment narrowly on the Ukraine scandal or to broaden it to include other alleged wrongdoing by the president. What approach do you think Congress should take?
PB: That's a very tough question. Prosecutors deal with this all the time because they have interests that sometimes conflict. On the one hand, you have an interest in making an indictment, which is an analog of an impeachment article, concise and streamlined and readily understandable to the jury — in my old line of work, 12 ordinary Americans. On the other hand, you don't want to leave stuff on the table if there's an important principle in holding someone responsible for misconduct.
But my old way of doing things in the U.S. Attorney's Office is different from an impeachment in the House and trial in the Senate. That's a political process. And there are arguable and decent political arguments to keep it simple about what's happening now and not go back into [special counsel Robert Mueller's] report and all sorts of allegations of obstruction, because the Ukraine story is more readily understandable. There's more direct evidence that's been developed within the [House] Intelligence Committee and it's more in the public mind, so I think it's reasonable for members of Congress to decide they want to proceed only on this stuff.
SD: What's been the hardest job, and what's been the most rewarding? Law student, lawyer, Senate staffer, U.S. attorney, podcaster or memoirist?
PB: I think in some ways the hardest job was working in the Senate because the learning curve was so steep. You can't read in a book, really, how to be a good Senate staffer, how to understand what makes good legislation substantively but what also needs to be compromised for the purposes of getting something passed. There's so much rancor and there's so much hidden agenda and politicizing of everything, and that's in the nature of the process, right? It's a political process. It's why they refer to it as "sausage being made" when they talk about legislation. It can be very, very difficult to navigate that, and Washington is a difficult place. And if you're involved in the machinery of government there, not necessarily a happy and fun place.
SD: What was the more notable achievement of yours: serving as the basis for a character on Showtime, being featured as a question on "Jeopardy!" or getting fired by a president?
PB: I'm gonna go with fired by a president.
SD: Safe answer.
PB: Is that the Daily Double?
SD: What's the most troubling thing you've seen from the president during his time in office?
PB: Wow, we don't have enough time, and they're hard to rank. But if I have to pick one theme, it's the complete disregard for the rule of law and the complete obsession with using the tools and institutions of democracy for personal benefit, politically or otherwise, or personal retaliation.
SD: It seems that the president could be prosecuted for various alleged offenses when he leaves office. Do you think that whoever the next president is should pardon him to avoid the spectacle of an ex-president on trial — or do you think he should face justice?
PB: I think there are arguments on both sides. I do think it's premature to ask that question, although I think some candidates have made proclamations about that. I think that, in part, depends on what happens with impeachment and if there's a measure of accountability for the president through this process. And some people think there won't be, because he can't be convicted in the Senate. I think we have to see how that process unfolds, see what public sentiment is on the accusations and allegations that haven't been brought forth yet to make an assessment on whether or not there's a further need to hold the president accountable. I just think you need to wait and see.
SD: A staple of your podcast has been answering questions about the law and current events from your listeners. What have you learned from the types of questions you've received?
PB: The main thing I've learned is how curious people are about the legal system and about the Constitution and how little civic education is readily available. I think there are lots and lots of thoughtful folks who are paying attention not just to politics but to the law and criminal law and the Constitution than ever before, and they're looking for voices that have credibility and standing to talk about those things. Really thoughtful folks who will ask basic questions because they're not in eighth grade anymore, and no one's going around explaining.
SD: Quick lightning round for you, and then I'll let you go. If you could pass one constitutional amendment, what would it be?
PB: That's so hard! That's harder than the other question you asked me. You know, I don't know. There are probably several. But I think we should look at reexamining the breadth of the pardon power.
SD: If you could overturn one U.S. Supreme Court decision, what would it be?
PB: Again, I hate picking one thing.
SD: You can pick two on this one. I'll give you two.
PB: Off the top of my head, just given that we're in an election cycle, Citizens United.
SD: What's your favorite Springsteen song?
PB: "Thunder Road."
SD: Good answer.
PB: Finally, an easy one.
SD: Finally, what are you most looking forward to during your visit to Vermont?
PB: Talking to students and talking about what's going on in the country. It's really fun to come and talk to members of a community that I don't know well and people who attend school. I learn something every time I go there. I probably learn more than people learn from me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.