In this June 8, 2017, file photo, former United States Attorney 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 in Washington. Bharara told USA Today for an article published on Sept. 18, 2017, that he is launching a new podcast called "Stay Tuned With Preet."
Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP
Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

AJC Interview: Preet Bharara on judicial independence and Trump’s fateful call

The U.S. attorney’s office that Preet Bharara led in New York is so fiercely independent that it’s known as the “Sovereign District.” 

So it should come as little surprise that when Bharara got a phone call from President Donald Trump in 2017 he didn’t call him back, fearing an attempt to interfere. He never found out why Trump reached out, but he has no regrets. 

“My decision not to return the call the president was one of the wisest things I’ve ever done,” he said in an interview.

Bharara is in Atlanta on Saturday to speak about his book, “Doing Justice,” as part of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s annual book festival. He’s among several big-name speakers visiting this month that also includes Nikki Haley and Hillary Rodham Clinton

His book hardly mentions Trump or the politics that led to Bharara’s ouster. Instead, it’s an homage to his nearly seven-year stint as one of New York’s top law enforcement officials overseeing an office that prosecuted terrorists and white-collar criminals, mob leaders and politicians.

Since his dismissal, Bharara has become a superstar in liberal circles and taken on a swirl of roles: He’s a CNN analyst, a prolific podcaster, a scholar-in-residence at NYU’s law school and has cultivated a social media personal that tops 1 million Twitter followers.

He spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ahead of his visit on Saturday to Atlanta.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited and condensed.  

Q: I think a lot of people reading this book expected much about Trump, or your potential political aspirations. But you focused mainly on what it’s like to be one of the nation’s top prosecutors. Why is that?

“There are a lot of forums to talk about Trump. I do that in my podcast and Twitter. But if you’re going to take a much larger look at what’s going on in the country – a much more serious eye to talk about what justice means – sometimes the way you have to address current events is to go back to these core principles. These issues – what is the nature of truth, the essence of fairness – may have an application in the Trump era. But they also concern what it means to be a citizen.” 

Q: You draw on examples of successful – and a few not so successful – convictions to make larger points about the criminal justice system. What needs to change?

“We do spend a lot of time and energy focusing on particular reforms – sentencing reforms, disparities, reintegrating people who have come out of prison. One reason I wrote the book is to try to make the point, over and over again, that no matter what reforms you enact, unless the people who are enforcing them are of good faith and good will, you still won’t get justice. We’re focused on the right rules and procedures and guidelines. But we can’t do that at the expense of making sure the people who are in charge of these things have integrity.” 

“One of the things I address in the book is prisons: How long we send people to prison, how we treat them in prison and how we re-integrate them back into society. That includes cash bail, solitary confinement, mandatory minimums. None of these things can be dealt with in a quick talking point.”

Q: What do you think of Republican-led states, like Georgia, that have embraced criminal justice overhauls?

“It’s encouraging. You see a coalition forming between people on the left and right, especially on prison reform, because it really shouldn’t be a political matter. You might have something from the right who focus on the ineffective expenditures of taxpayer dollars. And you have people on the other side arguing about the fairness of it ... but Republicans and Democrats come together to take a step forward.”

Q: Talk about that phone call from Trump in March 2017 that you didn’t return? Soon after, you were forced to resign. What do you think he was calling about?

“On March 9, 2017 the sitting president of the United States – without going through channels of the Justice Department or any other process – made a call to me personally. It might seem odd to some people when someone who is kind of your boss calls and you hesitate to call back. The Justice Department is different ... 

“I didn’t know what he was calling about. My antenna went up, and until I knew what he was calling about, to make sure he didn’t put me in a bad position and that I didn’t put him in a bad position, I didn’t call him back. ... 

“I was making sure I was not having a completely unprecedented side relationship. You know how many times Barack Obama called me? Zero. Twenty hours later I was asked for my resignation. I didn’t know what he was going to ask me about. But in the times since my decision, there was a huge mountain of evidence that the president tries to cultivate those relationships, he crosses those lines. My decision not to return the call the president was one of the wisest things I’ve ever done.”

Former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara on Thursday, May 10, 2018, did not rule out the possibility of running for New York attorney general in the fall. Here, Bharara is seen Nov. 17, 2016, in New York.

The Southern District of New York is so proud of its independence it likes to call itself the ‘sovereign district.’ Why is that prosecutorial independent important? 

“People will believe a result that’s fair if they think the process is fair and the people implementing it are fair-minded. If the decisions are made on the merits. Decisions to charge and not charge are based on the law and the facts and prior precedent. The moment there’s any blurring between those considerations and political considerations, you risk losing the faith of the public. ... 

“That’s why I think this business of Ukraine and other things the president has done is so deeply corrosive to people’s understanding of fairness and justice. If there needs to be an investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden, and people in good faith decide to undertake it, then that’s all well and good. But that determination shouldn’t be coming from the president of the United States. That happens in dictatorships and banana republics.”

Q: How do you cope with the public pressure to take action? 

“It confuses folks a little bit. There’s a distinction between good-faith interest on the part of a politician or a newspaper that some public safety crisis needs to be addressed. That’s perfectly appropriate and right to say we need something done about something like the opioid crisis ... What we can’t have is political or public pressure to prosecute based on political preference.”

Q: Georgia is home to another former federal prosecutor who has enraged Trump. What do you think Sally Yates’ future holds in store?

“I know well enough to let Sally answer that for herself. But she’ll excel in whatever she does – elected office or otherwise.”

Q: Another Georgian in high office is Chris Wray, FBI director. You’ve said he “strives to do the right things for the right reasons.” What does that mean? 

“From everything I can tell, he looks like he’s conducting himself in the right and good traditions of law enforcement. He does not take the bait when people try to get him to say political things, and he seems to have the trust of the rank-and-file. 

“I find that to be in contrast of other people, including (Attorney General) Bill Barr. Chris Wray won’t adopt the language or rhetoric – he’s more neutral and mild-mannered from everything I can see. All of law enforcement needs to be, at some level, at arms’ length from the president. Chris Wray has demonstrated that, Bill Barr has not.” 

Q: One of the chief lessons in your book is how accusations can change lives, and that they should not be made under pressure. 

“You have to be very careful not to make accusations in the press or prosecutor’s office without due care. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be aggressive or should be too fearful. But the culture of the office should be suffused with humility and the responsibility to do everything you can to make it right. You can’t let outside pressure interfere with the sober responsibility of getting it right as much as possible.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.