Preet Bharara is something of a celebrity in legal circles. He distinguished himself as the hard-nosed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York during the Obama administration. Bharara was coined a “crusader” prosecutor for aggressively fighting public corruption and Wall Street crime during his eight years in the position. He gained his notoriety when he refused to resign after Donald Trump’s election, instead forcing Trump to fire him after Trump had previously promised to keep him in his post.
In the eighteen months since he was fired, Bharara has extended his celebrity to a larger circle, and many of his admirers were in attendance last week when he delivered prepared remarks, followed by a Q and A, at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis). He began his remarks with a series of humorous jabs at Trump (without mentioning the president by name). “Welcome to my first rally,” he said, quickly adding, “We have 45,000 outside who couldn’t get into the hall.” He went on to explain that he now hosts a podcast as his main line of work and that he feels he is considerably less likely to be fired from it since his brother is the producer.
He also joked about the Mondavi venue, saying that he thought he was going to be at a wine tasting. He also had the audience laughing about his brother’s success in the diaper business when he explained that Vinnie Bharara co-founded the on-line diaper service that Amazon purchased in 2010 for $540 million. The company’s slogan, Bharara informed the audience, was “we’re number one in number two.”
He then launched into his formal remarks, beginning with the most recent news of Brett Kavanaugh’s swearing-in ceremony. He noted the institutional loss for the Supreme Court and Congress, opining that approval of Congress is now lower than approval of colonoscopies.
He noted that even though Democrats have held the presidency for 40 percent of the time over the last 50 years, they have only appointed four of 18 Supreme Court justices. And even though three of the 14 Republican appointees (Blackmun, Stevens, and Souter) became more liberal during their tenure, the balance has tipped decidedly to the right, especially with the two new appointees now secured by Trump.
He bemoaned the current reality that court appointees are chosen by the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation, right-wing groups that have provided Trump with his list of potential nominees. “What the Hell is going on?” he asked, mimicking Trump.
But he immediately expressed optimism for the future. “The press is doing well,” he said, pointing out that serious journalists were still free to find and report the truth and that many were doing so in the efforts to unmask dubious ethics of many in the Trump administration. “And the courts are still independent,” he added, pointing to rulings against Trump on issues like the travel ban and environmental protection. Still, he said, “it’s right to be angry.”
He deplored the denigration of immigrants by Trump and his administration. He acknowledged that his family was not from Norway (another dig at Trump), nor had his ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. But, he proudly asserted that he considers himself every bit as much an American. He recalled his own naturalization ceremony at the age of 12 and criticized Stephen Miller (Trump’s top aide on immigration issues) for belittling the Lazarus poem noted on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor …”). Miller has pointed out that the poem was added to the statue “later.” “Like the Bill of Rights,” Bharara quipped.
Turning his attention to Trump’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp,” he called for a commitment to justice and fairness in the administration’s attitude towards the claims of police brutality and racism. He asked the rich to care for the poor and the mighty to care about the weak, and hoped that those who have secured the riches life can provide would recognize that “there but for the grace of God go I.” He concluded those thoughts by asserting that he was proud not to have returned Trump’s phone call when he knew the president was going to ask him to resign. He forced Trump to fire him, and it is a badge of honor to him that the president ultimately did.
Turning to the state of the American democracy, Bharara acknowledged that the system is intended to work, primarily, on an honor system. Those in power are expected to perform responsibly and to set good examples in their public and personal lives. But, he said, maybe the country needs some laws. Two that he suggested (both of which received hearty applause from the audience) were a law requiring the disclosure of recent tax returns for all presidential candidates and a law enforcing the intended impact of the emoluments clause of the U.S. constitution. (That clause prohibits federal office holders from receiving any gift or financial enrichment from foreign states or from representatives of foreign states.)
Bharara closed his prepared remarks by emphasizing the crux of America’s legal tradition, as he sees it. That tradition holds that the law can bind a diverse people together because no one individual is above the law. And, he concluded, it stresses liberty, equality, and the rule of law.
Bharara began an extended Question and Answer period by saying (in answer to the question, what keeps you up at night?) that whether the White House is a dump (as Trump has reportedly claimed) is nowhere near the top of his list. Instead, he bemoaned the divisiveness in our society, which he sees as even more severe under the current administration.
Addressing the likely course the Supreme Court will take, he said he does not foresee major sudden reversals on issues like abortion. Rather, he envisions gradual but steady erosion. He see Chief Justice Roberts as a safety valve because, he thinks, Roberts in an “incrementalist.” He also sees the possibility that the newly confirmed Justice Kavanaugh may “overcorrect” his biases and become more of a centrist than a blatant ideologue. He did acknowledge on that point that it may be “wishful thinking.”
Bharara did become noticeably defensive when he was asked why no major bank was charged in the aftermath of the 2008 credit crash. He essentially hemmed and hawed his way through an imprecise answer that seemed to say “not enough evidence.” It was his only weak moment of the evening. But he regained his footing when he was asked about the threats on the integrity of our elections. He began his answer by saying everyone had to be vigilant. And he acknowledged that gerrymandering continues to be a major concern.
But with respect to outside interference, he said he has the highest regard for Robert Mueller and believes that Mueller’s integrity will result in an honest report that will serve to alert the country to the potential of foreign meddling. He said that whatever Mueller’s report indicates as to past activities, he will accept it and the country should, too.
Bharara said he strongly opposes any effort to curtail free speech and freedom of the press. He noted that Alex Jones (the founder and host of InfoWars) is odious and horrible, but he opposes government censorship even of his outrages. Instead, he favors “sunlight” as the best antidote. He also stressed the desirability of friendship across ideological lines. Referring to his longstanding friendship with Viet Dinh, the conservative former Assistant Attorney General (in the George W. Bush administration), Bharara said he considers Dinh to be one of the smartest people he knows who just “happens to be wrong about most things.” He stressed that friends can disagree and that reasonable people can have opposing views within a recognized spectrum of reasonable perspectives.
On that point he said that society should emulate what attorneys do in court, where they “agree to disagree.” And then he closed by stating with absolute certainty that the American democracy will endure.