Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said he discussed with his deputy secretly taping President Trump during the tumultuous early months of the administration when many people in the U.S. government “really thought that you had an unhinged president.”
Bharara, who was fired by Trump two days later, says he quickly rejected the idea and never carried it out.
“It was a wacko time in the United States,” he said, describing in unusually candid terms his thinking during the weeks after the firing of FBI Director James Comey, when Bharara was still serving as the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan. “Maybe some people weren’t thinking fully rationally, but people were really worried. And, people really thought that you had an unhinged president.”
There was “a state of tension” and a “state of shock that was pervasive throughout the government at the time,” Bharara said in an interview for the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.”
Bharara, considered a potential candidate for attorney general in a future Democratic administration, is promoting his recently published book, “Doing Justice.” During a discussion about the book, the former top prosecutor provided new details about a tense moment on March 9, 2017, when, for a brief moment, he and his deputy discussed secretly recording Trump. The discussion came after Bharara — who was appointed by President Obama but was originally asked to stay on by Trump — got a “bizarre” phone message that the president wanted to talk to him.
Bharara never learned why Trump was calling. But he emphasized it was highly unusual for a president to be calling a U.S. attorney, especially one who had jurisdiction over the Trump Organization and the president’s own business affairs. Although he had no open case on Trump, he was concerned about the possibility the president would ask about some other ongoing criminal case, creating an “awkward moment where I would have to end the conversation” and report it to the Justice Department.
But, he worried, “Who’s gonna believe me?”
Bharara consulted with his deputy, Joon Kim. “We thought about and then rejected the possibility of recording the president,” Bharara said, “because we thought that’s a bridge too far. But, we did think about it. Because, the concern was ... both for my protection, and the other party’s protection, the other party being ... Individual-1 ... that nothing untoward was spoken about ... or he didn’t ask me for my loyalty, etc. It would have been nice to have a record.” (“Individual-1” is how Trump was described last year in court documents filed by Bharara’s successor in the case against the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, over violations of campaign finance law. Cohen pleaded guilty. Trump has not been charged in the case.)
Bharara said he believes that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was thinking along the same lines — and “wasn’t joking” — when he too also briefly considered taping Trump in the days after the firing of Comey. And he doesn’t accept the argument that Trump, being new to Washington, didn’t understand the long-standing tradition that the White House shouldn’t interfere in or seek to influence Justice Department investigations.
“Some people say, ‘Well, he doesn’t understand the protocols, he doesn’t understand what the guidelines are, it’s all new to him,’” Bharara said. “That’s bulls***. ... He knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows exactly what is proper, what’s not proper. Because, he won the presidency in part by yelling at rallies in front of tens of thousands of people” about the airport meeting between then- Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton while the Justice Department was investigating Hillary Clinton’s email server.
Bharara also said the “wacko” nature of Trump’s presidency has not dissipated. “Well, there are spikes in wacko-ness, right?” he said. And he added Trump has proven himself time and again to be a congenital liar — another reason Bharara and others have either considered secretly taping him, or actually done so.
“Look, there’s a theme that runs through all people’s meetings with the president ... whether they’re allies, like Michael Cohen or Omarosa [Manigault] or others, or they’re people who you’re supposed to have some arm’s length distance from, and they all want to document the phone calls. Either by recording them, thinking about recording them, memorialize them right away,” he said.
Download or subscribe on iTunes: “Skullduggery” from Yahoo News
“Look, this is not a partisan statement. The man lies. The man mischaracterizes not only what happens behind closed doors, in meetings with people who wouldn’t be able to prove what words were actually uttered. He lies about the things that he says on national television the next day. ... Whether it’s in Helsinki, or in any other context. A human being who so blithely lies about what he says and about what other people say, you know what? Intelligent, reasonable, cautious folks like to think about how to protect their own reputations in that context.”
Given the unusual nature of the Trump presidency — and his de facto immunity from criminal prosecution under current Justice Department policy — Bharara tends to side with House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler that the full report by special counsel Robert Mueller should be released — even if that seems to cut against the views expressed in his own book.
In a chapter of his book titled “Walking Away,” Bharara writes about the obligations of a prosecutor when he or she chooses not to indict a high-profile target, and whether to explain to the public their reasons. It was a dilemma Bharara faced many times, given the many high-profile investigations, of targets from Wall Street mogul Steve Cohen to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, that never resulted in indictments.
“We could demand that our prosecutors explain at length their decision to walk away, especially when the smell of smoke is strong in public nostrils, so citizens can be satisfied about the rectitude of those decisions,” Bharara wrote in “Doing Justice.” “But prosecutors can get into deep trouble, if they talk too much about a decision not to prosecute. ... After all, the subject has a right to fairness also, to be free from prosecutorial slander. You owe it to the system and to the guidelines of the department, as well as to the presumed innocent party you chose not to charge, to keep your mouth shut. It is a quandary. Believe me, I appreciate the impulse to talk. A decision to decline, to walk away is not a blessing of the conduct, but in the system we have, minimalism tends to be the best practice.”
Bharara said, however, those words don’t necessarily apply to Mueller’s decision not to bring charges against Trump.
“In your standard criminal case it’s a binary choice. And the only thing you can do is you can prosecute or not prosecute.” But, he added, “there’s two things that are unique about the president.” One is, he has a “shield” against criminal prosecution due to Justice Department policy. The other factor is, he is accountable to Congress through a potential impeachment process.
And those factors, Bharara argues, should give Congress the authority to “take stock” of Trump’s conduct by seeing the Mueller report.
“The president’s different from everyone else,” he said.
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