The White House on Monday insisted that President Trump’s decision to fire Preet Bharara was “noise” and “not news” — taking to the very news network whose parent company the crime-busting federal prosecutor had been in the process of investigating to make the startling announcement.
“This is just not a news story,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends” about Trump having fired Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
“I don’t think it’s a big news story except that he didn’t want to resign,” Conway added.
“It’s a lot of noise and not much news because it’s very uniform and it’s very common for presidents to ask for the resignations of political appointees like ambassadors and like U.S. attorneys,” she said.
Conway’s chosen venue for her remarks, however, was one of the many targets of investigations that Bharara had opened.
Bharara’s office had been conducting a probe of Fox News Channel and whether the Rupert Murdoch-owned company hid payments it made to employees who alleged sexual assault from its investors.
He was also investigating whether certain Fox News Channel executives broke any federal laws by allegedly obtaining the phone records of various journalists, New York magazine reported Sunday night.
The timing and circumstances of Bharara’s firing by Trump raised eyebrows across the nation.
Shortly after his November victory, Trump met with Bharara, who said the President had asked him to continue in his role.
But Trump apparently backtracked on that vow on Friday, requesting the resignation of 46 U.S. attorneys who had been appointed by former President Barack Obama, including Bharara.
When Bharara, a corruption-busting prosecutor whose office convicted former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau) and ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), didn’t oblige the request, he was fired.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was repeatedly asked during his press briefing Monday whether Trump “changed his mind” following the November meeting, but he declined to answer, referring all such questions to the Department of Justice.
The Department of Justice did not respond to questions Monday about the decision to fire Bharara.
In addition, Spicer would not confirm or deny that Trump had even asked Bharara to stay on in the first place.
“I’m not sure how it’s relevant at the end of the day,” Spicer said.
“This is a standard operating procedure,” Spicer added, referring to requests by several former presidents for U.S. Attorneys to step down.
Adding to the growing questions surrounding any potential connection between Trump’s decision to terminate Bharara and the ongoing Fox News Channel probe were reports that Trump’s Justice Department was considering Marc Mukasey, a former Southern District prosecutor and the personal lawyers of Fox News boss Roger Ailes, as Bharara’s replacement.
A source who has participated in the vetting process of U.S. attorneys and federal judges in New York told the Daily News that, unlike in the past, when local input was sought, “there will be little local influence, it will be straight from the top” this time.
“They usually seek the buy-in of the local legal community,” the source said of those picking U.S. Attorneys. “But what will happen in this case is a much-more closed process decision-making” the source said.
The source added Mukasey is currently the only person under consideration.
The first hint that something was amiss with Bharara’s job came on Thursday when his office received a call from Trump’s assistant requesting that the Manhattan prosecutor call the White House.
Bharara never returned the call due to protocols governing a president’s direct contact with federal prosecutors, Bharara instead reached out to an adviser to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, The New York Times reported.
Spicer said Monday that Trump was only calling “to thank him for his service.”
Another source confirmed that account to The News and said that it was Sessions who wanted to clean house across the board.
Bharara offered high praise for his former colleagues on Monday as he exited his lower Manhattan office for the last time.
“I love New York and this is the best prosecutor’s office I’ve ever seen,” he said as staffers lined the steps of his office and as a person played the bagpipes.
Except for a few tweets, Bharara has yet to speak publicly about the ordeal, although an April 6 lecture he had been scheduled to give at Cooper Union sold out Monday afternoon.
Meanwhile, his abrupt departure could interrupt other ongoing investigations by his office, including a probe into Mayor de Blasio’s administration and allegations of pay-to-play.
De Blasio has also remained mum since news of Bharara’s firing emerged.
And on Monday, he repeatedly refused to comment about Bharara’s ouster, offering various iterations of “no comment” to reporters throughout the day.
Experts have told The News, however, that the investigation is all-but-certain to continue under acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim as well as under whoever is tapped as Bharara’s permanent replacement.