Fired By Trump, Preet Bharara Describes The Justice System He Served

Mar 18, 2019
Originally published on March 19, 2019 3:27 pm

Preet Bharara was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York until he was fired by President Trump in 2017. His new book, Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law, hitting shelves Tuesday, explores the justice system through his experiences.

In an interview with NPR, Bharara says that while our system has flaws, he supports it. He also talks about how executives have been able to avoid criminal prosecution, about how he became a symbol through social media in Turkey and about Robert Mueller's investigation.

Bharara says people should be prepared for the possibility that Mueller may find no criminal activity by the president that Mueller feels he can prove without a reasonable doubt — and that "if that is the conclusion of Robert Mueller, I'll say, so be it."

The interview highlights contain some extra content that did not air in the broadcast version.


Interview Highlights

On how top-level Wall Street executives were able to avoid prosecution for events triggering the Great Recession

The person at the top often has plausible deniability. "You know, I didn't tell you to defraud anybody." There were also many occasions on which a financial institution would ask for the legal advice or accounting advice of a third party, and they would say, "Hey, will you bless this?" And in some cases, you know, maybe it was sketchy to bless something. ... It has been recognized throughout our system that if some independent third party says, "Yeah, we're the experts, we're the professionals, you can do this thing," you can make this disclosure and it's sufficient. You're never gonna get a jury, unless they're violating their oath as jurors ... to believe that the first person that relied on the advice had the intent to commit a crime. And that's true, by the way, for ordinary people who may have tax returns that they file and they say they relied on their accountant. And some people who say they relied on their accountant commit fraud and take deductions that they shouldn't.

On his 7 1/2 years as U.S. attorney

In retrospect, it seems to have gone very quickly. There were moments where it seemed to go very slowly. I have a chapter in the book where I talk about the verdict and what it's like, because I want people to feel what it was like to be in the office and to do the work, even though I think it's, they're universal lessons and applicable to everyone, you know. I say that the wait for a jury verdict is one of the most painful things you can do — obviously, the most painful for the person who's on trial, but painful and difficult for the prosecutor too — and one of the biggest cases we brought against [hedge fund manager and founder of Galleon Group] Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading, the jury was out 11 days. So those 11 days felt like seven years. But the overall seven and a half years, it's like your kids growing up — it flies by.

On criticism he has gotten

I got a lot of criticism, sometimes for being too soft, sometimes for being too harsh. I'm banned from Russia by Vladimir Putin because we successfully prosecuted an international arms dealer named Viktor Bout. I was personally attacked by President Erdogan of Turkey because we prosecuted somebody that, you know, he had connections to in an indirect way.

On prosecuting gold trader Reza Zarrab and causing a political uproar

Reza Zarrab was a gold trader, Iranian, but also from Turkey, who was being prosecuted along with other folks in Turkey for various, you know, elements of misconduct, and those cases were made to go away because he was politically connected to two people who were close to [Turkish President] Erdogan. ... He exercised his power in a country that doesn't have the same constitutional protections that America has. He relieved judges of their duty. He removed prosecutors from office. He shut down media outlets. And the case went away — literally the case was made to go away. ... So Zarrab shows up in Florida. He's under arrest. It becomes an overnight sensation in Turkey, because, you know, much of secular Turkey saw this as an example of American justice that can survive and work and prevail, even when Turkish justice would not.

On special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election

People should have a lot of faith in Robert Mueller. I have a ton of faith in Robert Mueller. I think, you know, he is not a deity and he should not be put on a pedestal, but there's no one I can think of in the country who could have done this job as honorably as he's doing — and even he has been attacked and dragged through the mud, and false accusations made about him. What I'm saying is he's just a law man acting by the book, trying to do what he thinks is correct with a band of really, really smart, I think, honorable people around him. But if people think that America will be healed or America will be better or these dangers to democracy will be fixed if Bob Mueller recites chapter and verse a lot of misconduct on the part of the president, then they're mistaken, because even if he does that, it goes to the Congress, and Congress has been fairly supine.

Mia Venkat and Steve Mullis produced and edited this story for broadcast. Lindsey Feingold contributed to the Web story.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Preet Bharara has been thinking about the justice system. He's had time since President Trump fired him as a U.S. attorney in Manhattan in 2017. Now Bharara has written a book about a justice system that is meant to protect the innocent even if some of the guilty get away.

PREET BHARARA: The system is the system. We could have a different system. We could have a Singaporean system. You know? We could have a system, in some other places, where you spit in the sidewalk, and there's no due process and you can be executed. That's not the system we have.

INSKEEP: It's a system he supports, even if the wealthy and powerful are especially likely to escape. Preet Bharara has written a book called "Doing Justice." In it, he barely mentions his experience with President Trump. Bharara has said elsewhere that the president placed inappropriate calls to him and then dismissed him. Instead of Trump, Bharara focuses on what he learned as the first Indian-American U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York with authority over many prominent cases. He describes famous convictions and also talks frankly of times when there were few convictions. No top-level Wall Street executives were prosecuted for the financial wrongdoing that triggered the Great Recession.

BHARARA: It's never a satisfactory answer to people who are rightly angry and prosecutors around the country who were victims of the financial crisis, too. But at the end of the day, career people didn't make a recommendation to bring a case against the head of a financial institution. Because there are all sorts of ways in which, you know, leaders of institutions and banks and other, you know, financial organizations immunize them self by relying on advice of counsel, by relying on accounts, who gave the blessing to do all these things. You have to prove what's in a person's mind.

INSKEEP: So wait a minute. A large-scale banker gets his institution involved in mortgage-backed securities, which we later discovered were incredibly risky, far riskier than people seemed to realize, and also almost impossible to unwind, almost impossible to get out of. Total disaster. What were some of the ways that an executive or a financier in that position would have evaded some kind of prosecution for that?

BHARARA: Well, a number of ways. First of all, the person at the top - and we see this with organized crime families and we see these with other kinds of, you know, organizations, as well. The person at the top often has plausible deniability. Says, you know, I didn't tell you to defraud anybody. There were also many occasions on which a financial institution would ask for the legal advice or accounting advice of a third party and they would say, hey, will you bless this? And in some cases, you know, maybe it was sketchy to bless something. But...

INSKEEP: I asked the advice of a lawyer. I asked the advice of an accountant.

BHARARA: And they don't work for me. Yeah, I pay them a fee, but it has been recognized throughout our system that if some independent third party says, yeah, we're the experts, we're the professionals, you can do this thing, you can make this disclosure and it's sufficient, you're never going to get a jury. Unless they're violating their oath as jurors, you're never going to get a jury to believe that the first person that relied on the advice had the intent to commit a crime.

And that's true, by the way, for ordinary people who may have tax returns that they file and they say they relied on their accountant. Now, some people who say they were relying on their accountant commit fraud and take deductions that they shouldn't. And, you know, I used to give this example all the time. It's very hard to separate the ones who are in cahoots with their lawyers and not.

INSKEEP: Were you, as a prosecutor, ever politically interfered with?

BHARARA: I was not. If I had been, I would have left the job earlier.

INSKEEP: Did you just describe an almost unique feature of the American system of justice?

BHARARA: Well, I don't (laughter) know if it's going to be forever unique in that way. We have this evidence now of President Trump making calls along these lines. And you get a lot of - I got a lot of criticism. Sometimes for being too soft, sometimes for being too harsh. I'm banned from Russia by Vladimir Putin because we successfully prosecuted an international arms dealer named Viktor Bout. I was personally attacked by President Erdogan of Turkey because we prosecuted somebody that, you know, he had connections to in an indirect way.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned Turkey's president. What happened in a different country, in a different system, when there was a prosecution of someone named Reza Zarrab, and it became a matter of political interest?

BHARARA: So Reza Zarrab was a gold trader, Iranian but also from Turkey, who was being prosecuted along with other folks in Turkey for various, you know, elements of misconduct. And those cases were made to go away because he was politically connected to two people who were close to Erdogan.

INSKEEP: What did President Erdogan of Turkey do to make that case go away?

BHARARA: Well, he exercised his power in a country that doesn't have the same constitutional protections that America has. He relieved judges of their duty. He removed prosecutors from office. He shut down media outlets. And the case went away. Literally, the case was made to go away. Now, that is not something we've seen in this country and hopefully we'll never see in this country. And it's harder to accomplish in this country.

And then Reza Zarrab made the mistake of showing up at Disney World one day, and a young prosecutor from my office spearheaded a case that was an indictment under seal, Michael Lockard, against Reza Zarrab for sanctions evasion. So Zarrab shows up in Florida. He's under arrest. It becomes an overnight sensation in Turkey because, you know, much of secular Turkey saw this as an example of American justice that can survive and work and prevail, even when Turkish justice would not.

INSKEEP: You note when Turkey failed to prosecute this man and then your office did prosecute this man that you became a kind of social media hero in Turkey. You got a huge following. Apparently...

BHARARA: Yeah. Completely undeserved. As I said, other people had done the work. But I became a symbol. And I say, look, the prosecutors are not saviors. They can't solve everything. It takes an involvement from a lot of other people. It just happens to be the case that it's very easy to put, you know, their hopes and hatreds both, sometimes, in the figure of a prosecutor.

INSKEEP: Are people putting too much faith in Robert Mueller?

BHARARA: People should have a lot of faith in Robert Mueller. I have a ton of faith in Robert Mueller. I think, you know, he is not a deity and he should not be put on a pedestal, but there's no one I can think of in the country who could have done this job as honorably as he's doing. And even he has been attacked and dragged through the mud and false accusations made about him. What I'm saying is he's just a lawman acting by the book trying to do what he thinks is correct with a band of really, really smart, I think, honorable people around him.

But if people think that America will be healed, or America will be better or these dangers to democracy will be fixed if Bob Mueller recites, chapter and verse, a lot of misconduct on the part of the president then they're mistaken. 'Cause even if he does that, it goes to the Congress, and Congress has been fairly supine.

INSKEEP: Given your experience, should we be prepared for the possibility that even though Mueller has clearly found lots of criminal activity around the president, he may find no criminal activity by the president himself that he feels he can prove beyond a reasonable doubt?

BHARARA: Yes. We should be prepared for that. And we should also be - I'll say it. I've said it before. I'll say it again. And if that is the conclusion of Robert Mueller, I will say, so be it.

INSKEEP: Preet Bharara is the author of "Doing Justice." Thanks so much.

BHARARA: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.