Trump fires 46 Obama-era Justice Dept. attorneys. Is that normal?

On Friday, the Trump administration asked the remaining 46 US attorneys appointed by Obama to tender their resignations. Why the request surprised many.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
United States District Attorney Preet Bharara announces charges in New York in December. Mr. Bharara, who had expected to stay in his post, was included on a list of prosecutors asked to submit resignation letters Friday as Attorney General Jeff Sessions clears space for prosecutors that can be appointed by President Donald Trump.

Political appointees are accustomed to leaving their posts with each new administration. But the Trump administration’s decision to relieve Obama-era Justice Department attorneys of their jobs is raising eyebrows around Washington.

On Friday, acting deputy attorney general Dana Boente called the 46 remaining US attorneys who had been appointed under President Obama. Mr. Boente, the top prosecutor for the Eastern District of Virginia and himself a holdover from the Obama administration, requested these attorneys’ resignations, effective immediately. Their deputies, career government prosecutors, will take over their caseloads until the Trump administration can appoint its own attorneys, the Justice Department said.

According to the Justice Department, the clean sweep is intended to “ensure a uniform transition.” But the transition has typically been more gradual, and the request for resignations - which follows several weeks of pressure from Trump supporters outside the White House - surprised many.

US government attorneys are appointed, and serve at the pleasure of the president. That means changes aren’t unusual between administrations, especially when power transfers from one party to the other.

“As was the case in prior transitions, many of the United States Attorneys nominated by the previous administration already have left the Department of Justice,” Sarah Isgur Flores, a Justice Department spokeswoman, told the New York Times in an email. “The Attorney General has now asked the remaining 46 presidentially appointed U.S. Attorneys to tender their resignations in order to ensure a uniform transition.”

But for the past three administrations, the transition has typically been more gradual. Although President Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, asked all 93 remaining appointees to resign soon after she took office, many attorneys enjoyed a grace period of several weeks as they finalized cases and their replacements were confirmed. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations took an even more gradual approach, easing out appointees over the course of the first year.

By contrast, Ms. Flores said the prosecutors would be asked to resign “effective immediately,” according to Politico. The Trump administration has yet to name any replacements to these roles.

What’s behind the decision? White House officials indicated that the move had been contemplated for a while, several news outlets reported. 

But it comes in the wake of weeks-long pressure from Trump supporters to oust Obama-era officials, who supporters say are responsible for a series of high-profile leaks from within the government. On Thursday evening, Fox News commentator Sean Hannity called for President Trump to “purge” Obama-era nominees.

The call for resignations came as a surprise to prosecutors and lawmakers alike. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, described the decision as “sudden and unexpected.”

“In January, I met with Vice President Pence and White House Counsel Donald McGahn and asked specifically whether all U.S. attorneys would be fired at once,” she said in a statement. “Mr. McGahn told me that the transition would be done in an orderly fashion to preserve continuity. Clearly this is not the case.”

Mr. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had also previously met with at least one US attorney - Preet Bharara of Manhattan - and asked him to remain in his post.

“The president-elect asked…to meet with me to discuss whether or not I’d be prepared to stay on as the United States attorney to do the work as we have done it, independently, without fear or favor, for the last seven years,” Bharara said in a statement to reporters at Trump Tower in November, the Washington Post reported. His office has prosecuted high-profile cases involving police officials and is currently preparing to try former aides of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Though there was some initial confusion as to whether the request for resignations applied to Mr. Bharara, he appears to have been affected. That leaves Boente and Rod Rosenstein, the top prosecutor in Baltimore and Trump’s nominee for deputy attorney general, as the only two Obama-era appointees in their posts.

The Trump administration will now nominate its own appointees to fill the 94 vacant US attorney positions. Until then, their deputies, career government lawyers, will be in charge.

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