Preet Bharara Reads Bob Mueller’s Tea Leaves
NEW YORK—Preet Bharara won’t say whether he was investigating President Donald Trump when he was fired in March or whether he’s seen anything that’s informed his view of whether the president or anyone close to him colluded with Russia to rig the 2016 election. He deflects comment on whether he thinks the president should be impeached or indicted.
But after eight years running one of the biggest and most active public corruption operations as the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, Bharara knows a little about how to read indictments and plea deals, and with Monday’s big news out of the Mueller investigation, it looks to him like much more is coming.
“Hard to tell, but the George Papadopoulos guilty plea tells us (a) Mueller is moving fast, (b) the Mueller team keeps secrets well, (c) more charges should be expected and (d) this team takes obstruction and lying very, very seriously,” Bharara says, referring to the former unpaid Trump campaign adviser, whose plea deal rocked Washington on Monday. “That should be of concern to some people.”
As a prosecutor who took down the leaders of both the New York State Assembly and State Senate and many other elected officials, donors and operatives, Bharara knows well the kind of prosecutorial strategy and psychological pressure at play in investigations like Mueller’s—and that makes him a particularly informed tea leaves reader as the political world tries to decipher the strategy and meaning of Monday’s indictments and plea deal, and even the timing of unsealing the plea so shortly after Trump tweeted defensively that Paul Manafort’s and Rick Gates’ trouble meant nothing to him.
Had things gone differently, Bharara, who is 49, would gladly have stayed in his old prosecutor job instead of launching a podcast and taking a fellowship at New York University. Though Bharara was an Obama appointee, Trump personally interviewed him during the transition and announced he planned to retain him—only to change his mind months later and demand the resignations of all 46 sitting U.S. attorneys. The president has never explained why.
The way Bharara tells the story, about 22 hours before he received the call telling him there’d been a turnaround and he was out of a job, he deliberately didn’t return a call from Trump after deciding that it could create the appearance of impropriety—or perhaps be inappropriate, given that his office held jurisdiction over Manhattan, where Trump lived and his business is based.
“I don’t talk about the things we were examining and investigating during that time I was U.S. attorney, including on the day that I left that job,” Bharara told me, in a separate interview for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. “But there would be people who would know what we were looking at, including the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, because we provided summaries of significant and sensitive cases that we were working. And that’s all I’ll say.”
Bharara says this is just a standard answer, that he never talks about investigations or cases. But his mention of Sessions lingers in the air.
In Bharara’s new role as a liberated Trump critic, he will talk about how he thinks Trump enabled an environment of people busting through norms and boundaries, and looking out for themselves above all. He’s also happy to talk about the reaction he had to the meeting and two phone calls he had with the then-president-elect last fall and winter. Nothing inappropriate was said, Bharara says, and no loyalty was asked for.
Still, Bharara says he was uneasy, and he’s critical of Trump’s interviews with potential nominees for his old job. What he’s seen since makes him think that if he knew then what he knows now, he wouldn’t have taken that meeting in November.
“This is a person who is a transactional player in the world—that’s how he did what he did in his business, and that’s how he thinks, I think, the justice system is supposed to work. And why not have people on your side, because like the Godfather says, the Godfather may come to you for a favor,” Bharara says. “You don’t know what that is, you don’t know if it will ever come. But my suspicion is that one day it might have come.”
He rejects the idea that because he was picked by President Barack Obama and worked for Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), he was loyal to Obama or had a political agenda. He even chose not to vote while he was U.S. attorney. And as he talks about the pressure that was on him from Trump, he pointedly dropped a reference to another person he once sparred with over an investigation: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.
“No United States attorney is supposed to be anybody’s guy,” Bharara says. “I know there are some folks that have this view that other people are like they are. Deeply political people, whether you’re talking about a governor of a state or a chief of staff to a president, think that everyone acts like they do.”
Bharara is still in touch with friends in the United States attorney’s office, but he says they know better than to talk about cases, even cases that he was involved in when he was abruptly dismissed.
Now he’s in his new office in Vanderbilt Hall at NYU School of Law, where the student lounge is named after presidential in-laws Seryl and Charles Kushner—whose big donations to the school coincided with their son Jared Kushner’s time getting a JD/MBA there.
A picture of Bruce Springsteen with an arm around Bharara’s mother is proudly displayed (he’s a super fan). The diplomas are still in bubble wrap and haven’t been hung. The bookshelves are still mostly empty, though there’s a paperback copy of “This Town” lying sideways on one of them.
And the man who spent the past eight years running 220 attorneys in what’s traditionally the country’s preeminent prosecutor’s office is cramped into a space that he shares with his assistant, wearing a blue hoodie, checking his hair in his iPhone camera, talking up how many Twitter followers he has (as of Monday, he’s racked up nearly half a million of them since joining the platform in February).
Bharara’s main office is at his brother’s tech firm, where he has rediscovered himself as a podcast host, taking the media prowess he cultivated in office to the other side of the table. He clearly can’t stand Trump. But he stays careful, downplaying the level of expert insight he has into the special counsel’s investigation and the prospect of more charges.
“My concern is that if there are, you’re going to have tens of millions of people who will say, ‘Praise the Lord, this is terrific and that’s just,’ and tens of millions of people who will think that Bob Mueller’s the devil, and is political, even though I know he’s not. And the reverse will also be true, if he decides there’s no charge to bring against anyone, or there’s no referral to be made properly to the House of Representatives in terms of impeachment,” Bharara says. “It has nothing to do with the facts or the law; it has to do with what people’s political preference is.”
In Bharara’s experience, however much the public knows about what’s going on—or what information, from tax returns to bank records to emails to interviews prosecutors are reviewing—it’s only a fraction of the reality.
That’s true with Mueller too, he says.
“There are things that are public that are very damning, but I investigated cases for a lot of years, and oversaw many cases. There are many cases that look damning in the second month of the investigation—and that’s why you’re investigating them. By the way, a lot of the terrible evidence, the damning evidence, is the stuff that ends up, you know about,” Bharara says. “And the exculpatory things, if they exist, were the things that show what else was on someone’s mind that were more innocent and less nefarious, tend to be known to only the prosecutor.”
The only big question Bharara gives a firm answer to: Will you run for office? No, he says, never—though the rumors never made sense anyway, given that he doesn’t live in New York City, as he’d have to to run for mayor or Manhattan district attorney, as some have speculated he’d do, and there are entrenched Democratic incumbents in the statewide offices in New York. He also says he doesn’t want to be a judge of any sort, even on the Supreme Court, a scenario some were batting around under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win last year’s election.
He notes that ruling out politics doesn’t mean ruling out government (by process of elimination, that would seem to point to a continuing interest in one day being the United States attorney general).
“If there’s someplace I can serve that I think I can make a difference in the future,” Bharara says, “yeah, I would think about that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Trump fired all 50 U.S. attorneys. In fact, there are 93 U.S. attorney positions, 47 of which were vacant when Trump demanded the resignation of the remaining occupants.
via Politico http://politi.co/2lnbIsw
October 31, 2017 at 02:18AM