The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara was recently removed from his position by President Trump. Mr. Bharara’s removal as a federal prosecutor (the top federal prosecutor in the state) is part of a new administration’s political purge. The last three Administrations have similarly removed federal prosecutors from district courts, with Janet Reno (U.S. Attorney General for President Clinton) eliminating all 93 district attorney’s in one day.
What makes this one different is that Mr. Bharara did not traditionally step down or resign, he was fired. The purge of political appointees usually goes unnoticed, but a defiant Bharara brought attention to his plight…and more. His choice of stepping down v. firing is no small matter. Especially in a highly contemptuous relationship between the White House, Democrats, and mainstream media. And as expected, both were quick to condemn the firing.
But was their condemnation fair and did it address the real problem; Poltical appointees and Mr. Bharara’s sense or misunderstanding of “duty?”
The problem with political appointees
During each election cycle, a new president (and related party) enter into a vast and complex government organization. Much of it filled with lifers or career government service people. However, the president resides over 4000 positions that he/she appoint, spanning across dozens of organizations, of which over 1000 require Senate approval. It can take years for a president to appoint into these positions. However, as matter to emphasize, it is not a requirement to replace incumbent individuals, but if a president wants loyalty to his/her agenda, then it is a prudent move.
And here is where it gets muddy
The political appointee process is a convoluted and politically charged practice as our elected officials appoint servants loyal to them and a party, not necessarily the job. In fact, the very nature of the term “political appointee” seems counter to the role they serve, which is selfess service to their country? And for many who work in such positions, their political affiliations (and philosophies) rise to the top of their resume rather than their qualifications, abilities or sense of responsibility.
Of great concern
No matter what organization or role the president appoints, the position is at the top of the food chain. These areas and the people in them make the critical decisions that shape the environment and direction of the organization. For example, in my personal experience in the military, I witnessed many political appointees selected to run some of the top offices in the Pentagon.
Most of them were not qualified to run defense programs.
Political appointees in some fashion connect with a president’s political party serving for, on, or in some congressional staff, politically affiliated board or previous government position. Qualifications are not the top priority and offices within the Pentagon (and would imagine other government organizations) severely suffer from this awkward system.
It is important here to realize that this type of practice inherently creates conflicts of interest in roles and responsibilities, but most of all confusion in who these appointees serve, which to the average American should be you!
How do some government organizations look at “duty?”
I grew up in a military environment that unequivocally understood what “duty” to your country meant. It was a daily mantra of commitment to service reminding each military member of his/her responsibility, a higher cause or pledge to the respectful and obedient conduct of actions and tasks. A purpose so dear, that one who commits themselves to the military does so with the understanding of giving one’s life to it. In a way, it is cold to personal needs and altruistic in action. Everything you do serves something larger and greater than you. Although the military is not absent of ambition and possesses a fair share of personal motives, it is not welcome.
To demonstrate a sense of duty, as a general officer I was told: “the great thing about being a general is you no longer must find a job, the job finds you.”
In fact, politicking for employment and personal ambition did you little good. This unadvertised but understood environment instituted a discipline like no other where personal desires were considered detrimental to the mission. It is a culture of noble service that bends and maneuvers to the needs of our country, not oneself. Sacrifice, responsibility and a greater good underpin all efforts – to include being asked to leave it.
Public service positions are just as dutiful to our nation. Even though many do not possess life threating commitments, they provide selfless service to their community and our country. Their sense of commitment should be no different than the military with personal rewards internalized rather than sought.
In a way, it is more about the position you hold than the hold on the position.
It is accepting the fact that you are one of many to occupy a position. And to use the authority granted to it in a meaningful and magnanimous way. You are nothing but a vessel to accomplish its task; one in which its achievements are the people’s ambition, not yours.
However, as much as this may be the focus of many public service creeds, it seems to escape certain people. And would argue that the culprit is a dysfunctional process that incentivises relationships over duty.
Loyalty to what or who
Not all political appointees do a bad job. And most can separate themselves from political affiliations. In fact, many times the rule sets or the routine of the job keeps them from politically motivated decisions. But would argue (and to the point of this blog) their loyalty, in the end, is to themselves and who got them there, not their role.
Now, enter Preet Bharara
Preet Bharara has a Harvard B.A. and a law degree from Columbia. As a lawyer, Mr. Bharara career started in private law firms (Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher LLP and Swindler Berlin Shereff Friedman). It was not until 2000 that he entered into what is considered public service, as assistant U.S. attorney in New York. Mr. Bharara is a registered Democrat. And to make matters muddier, was the chief counsel to Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer who sat on the Senate Judiciary Committee (to emphasize, an important political relationship). And finally in 2009 was nominated as a federal prosecutor into the southern district of New York by President Obama.
During Mr. Bharara’s tenure as the district prosecutor, he was an excellent lawyer. He prosecuted numerous high profile public figures and companies on corruption, laundering, fraud and insider trading, on both sides of the political aisle. Overall, a bipartisan and competent prosecutor.
However, at some point, Mr. Bharara forgot his primary role as a public servant. Including the service across every aspect of the job, to include your removal. No matter how competent or serving you have been, you can expect being replaced with a new administration.
A sense of duty is not selective.
Public service is not up to the individual or situation. It doesn’t happen one day, or for certain circumstances, it happens every day and in all situations. To emphasize, a public servant is but a mere vessel in a complicated process. It is what you signed up for and leaving it is as much as part of your duty as committing to it.
In the end, a convoluted political process and a lack of duty
Mr. Bharara is not a dumb person and as a presidential “appointee” is quite aware of his actions and his newsworthy defiance. Above all, and to the point of his “duty,” Mr. Bharara’s personal ambition and political affiliation rose above all other considerations. His misunderstanding of his role and “duty,” combined with a questionable political appointee process, rose above selfless service to the nation. And more importantly, his service to the American people. Regardless of the inherent problems with a process, “duty” stands alone as a noble responsibility. And honorable people in these positions understand it and when asked to step down, do so humbly and quietly.