The front page of the New York Post on Sunday, the day after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was fired by President Donald Trump, was great, in a Post-ian way: a photo-illustration of a smiling, bleary-eyed Bill de Blasio, holding a Champagne flute and wearing a purplish party hat, above the giant headline “PREETY HAPPY: Xmas comes early for de Blasio as Trump fires foe Bharara.”
But the folks down at City Hall, and on the mayor’s reelection campaign team, aren’t celebrating just yet. True, Bharara had been tormenting de Blasio for nearly a year, with details of a pay-to-play investigation of the mayor and top aides dribbling out. And Bharara’s probe — along with a separate one by Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance — is the only major wild card standing in the way of de Blasio’s reelection this fall.
Bharara’s swift exit, as one of 46 U.S. Attorneys suddenly given the gate by Trump and new attorney general Jeff Sessions, actually introduces a new level of uncertainty and risk for Team de Blasio. They didn’t mind if things dragged out into early April, keeping the field of possible challengers in the September Democratic primary frozen. But if bad news, in the form of indictments, is inevitable, they’d prefer that it arrive with enough time left for de Blasio to recover. So the mayor’s defense lawyers had recently been pushing Bharara to make a decision sooner rather than later, by arguing that Bharara would be seen as “pulling a Comey” and putting his thumb on the voting scales if he waited much longer.
Now, though, the mayor’s advisers are concerned that the transition from Bharara to whichever Republican Trump installs will slow things down to the point where the timing of any possible indictments inflicts greater damage.
Another worrisome prospect for de Blasio and his team is that the internal dynamic of the U.S. Attorney’s office may have shifted in a way that makes an indictment more likely than it would been under Bharara.
Bharara, for all his attraction to the spotlight, was generally cautious when it came to bringing charges. As are most U.S. Attorneys, for professional and personal reasons: They take their legal responsibilities seriously, and they don’t like to lose, because the boss gets the blame, particularly in high-profile cases. Line assistants — the prosecutors in individual departments — are commonly much more eager to test their cases in court. With Bharara out, his deputy Joon Kim becomes interim U.S. Attorney. Kim is well-respected, and a close friend of Bharara’s, so the basic trajectory of the de Blasio case should stay the same. Another key player is Lisa Zornberg, the chief of the criminal division, who is reputed to be a highly aggressive prosecutor. She will probably want to move the de Blasio case to a conclusion before Trump names a replacement — not out of any partisan political calculation, but to follow through on the investigation’s natural momentum before the office is engulfed in an overhaul and a year’s worth of work stalls out. On the other hand, if the de Blasio case has hit a dead end, Zornberg will probably want to drop it and move on to other business.
Just because Bharara doesn’t get to make that call anymore doesn’t mean he’s done with big decisions. He became a pop-culture as well as a legal star during his nearly eight years in office — not just by convicting Wall Street fraudsters, international arms dealers, and two of New York state’s top-three politicians, but by doing it with a flair for the headline-stoking phrase. National magazines put his face on the cover; Bruce Springsteen shouted Bharara’s name from the stage.
Bharara’s departure is bad for the criminal-justice system, but he played his ouster deftly in political and public-relations terms. Somehow all the details of Bharara’s principled refusal to resign made it to reporters; then, having forced Trump’s hand, Bharara himself broke the news of his firing on Twitter. To his detractors, it was one more overhyped, grandstanding performance. To Bharara’s liberal fans, it reinforced his credibility as a tough-minded, independent, populist hero.
The second one is an enviable image for a potential New York politician. Bharara has consistently and repeatedly claimed to have no interest in running for office. Yet he has just as strenuously insisted that lasting, meaningful ethics reform, something he genuinely cares about, could only come from inside government.
Bharara’s skills as a leader and administrator are better suited to being a mayor than governor. The timing and the optics of making a 2017 bid, however, are awful: He would need to go from investigating de Blasio to running against him within weeks, something that smacks of unseemly conflict of interest.
Another scenario could be a 2018 grudge match against Governor Andrew Cuomo, who by all indications will be seeking a third term in Albany. Not that it would be an easy route for Bharara: In a primary battle against Cuomo for the Democratic nomination — Bharara is a registered Democrat — he would face some daunting disadvantages; and while it’s conceivable he could run as an independent candidate, the financial and ballot obstacles could be even more formidable. (A third, bank-shot possibility: State attorney general Eric Schneiderman takes on Cuomo and Bharara runs for AG.)
If the Bharara-Cuomo face-off does materialize, it would be irresistible political theater between two masters of strategy, and the press, who have jabbed at and stalked each other for years. At the height of Bharara’s probes of Albany corruption, in back-to-back midtown speeches, the two men advanced wildly different views of the political game. “How do you get to compromise? How do you get it done? How do you avoid disagreement?” Cuomo said. “Government is not a debating society. I want to be judged on what we actually got done … Nothing is linked. Everything is linked.”
“How many past bills were born of bribery? How many items in the budget? How much of the work of city and state government is tarnished by tawdry graft? And how much will be, unless there is some reform?” Bharara asked, several blocks away. “Public corruption has a massive opportunity cost, and it is a cost that no one can afford anymore … the problem of corruption in New York is systemic, not merely episodic.” It’s easy to imagine a 2018 contest as a riveting fight over the nature of New York state’s political culture.
The governor would have a massive advantage in fundraising — Cuomo has at least $22 million in the bank now, which could grow to $40 million by next year — and in upstate Democratic votes. Bharara’s appeal, though, would be that he’s an un-bought, crusading outsider, and his already-high name recognition in the city would be supplemented by an abundance of free media.
On Sunday afternoon, barely 24 hours after his firing was official, Bharara was already taking shots at Cuomo. “By the way,” he tweeted, “now I know what the Moreland Commission must have felt like.” It was a reference to Cuomo’s abrupt unplugging, in 2014, of an Albany corruption inquiry that had outlived its purpose as a political tool. The governor’s move infuriated Bharara and led, indirectly, to his indicting one of Cuomo’s closest aides.
Bharara has lost his job as U.S. Attorney, but he clearly hasn’t lost his sense of humor — or his desire to get under the governor’s skin. Does he really want to go any deeper than that? Colleagues believe a run for office remains a long shot. Besides, even without climbing down from the pedestal and taking on de Blasio or Cuomo in a messy campaign, Bharara already has the material to write a pretty good book. And then, if Bharara really wants to run for something big, in 2020 he can try to fire the man who just fired him.