On Friday, the Trump administration told 46 United States attorneys to resign their posts and fired one of the 46 who refused to resign. The 46 were Obama appointees who were held over for the first month of the Trump presidency.
Some have speculated that an on-air monologue on Sean Hannity’s television program led to President Trump’s action. One day before the resignations, Hannity called for a “purge” of “deep-state bureaucrats,” including the U.S. attorneys.
Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York (which includes Manhattan and Trump Tower), declined to take President Trump’s phone call on Thursday and tweeted on Saturday that he had been fired:
This news begs some important questions about U.S. attorneys. For instance, how do they shape law and the political order?
What is a United States attorney?
A United States attorney is a federal prosecutor and serves as the chief federal law enforcement officer in one of 93 different geographic districts in the United States.
So what is their job?
The job of all federal prosecutors is similar. They investigate those suspected of violating federal laws, then bring charges and present the case against the accused in court.
The U.S. attorney for a district performs a largely administrative role. They oversee their subordinates (assistant U.S. attorneys), guide the office’s prosecutorial approach, and communicate with the public.
How is this related to politics?
All U.S. (district) attorneys are political appointees.
A U.S. attorney is appointed by the president. Once he or she is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he or she remains U.S. attorney indefinitely until a replacement is appointed and confirmed or they resign their position. The 46 that Trump asked to resign Friday were appointed by former president Obama.
But the terminology can be confusing. The United States (district) attorney’s appointment is very different than that of a deputy or assistant U.S. attorney, who is a career prosecutor and not a political appointee.
Remember, the prosecutorial approach that U.S. attorneys pursue can become political. Prosecutors exercise a lot of prosecutorial discretion in how they pursue cases.
For example, a certain president’s administration might favor targeting Wall Street with an aggressive strategy to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. A different administration might have different priorities, like drug crime or terrorism.
Why were the U.S. attorneys asked to resign?
The best answer is because President Trump and his administration wanted them gone. It is part of the executive powers that all presidents have. Former president Clinton also asked 93 U.S. attorneys to resign in 1993, so the move is not without precedent. But the Trump administration has not publicly explained their reasoning yet.
Questions to discuss
- Do you think Hannity’s monologue is the reason?
- If so, should a TV personality have that kind of influence over the government?
- How could this action reshape U.S. law and the political order?