The move came as a surprise, and there are certain odd aspects to it — like the fact that Trump reportedly asked Preet Bharara, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, to resign despite previously telling him he could stay on. (Politico’s Josh Dawsey reports that Bharara is out.)
But while we don’t know everything that went on behind the scenes, it is common for incoming presidents to ask for the resignation of holdover US attorneys appointed by their predecessors — especially when there is partisan turnover.
Indeed, at around this time in the first year President Bill Clinton’s administration, Attorney General Janet Reno demanded the resignation of all US attorneys. President George W. Bush did something similar in 2001, though his Justice Department arranged a more gradual turnover, where all the holdovers would be out by June of that year. President Obama was a little slower, but got rolling on this by May 2009. (“Elections matter,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at the time.)
So though the timing seems a bit abrupt and haphazard in Trump’s case — and he hasn’t nominated any replacements for any of them yet — there’s nothing unusual about a president wanting to fill these jobs with his own people. And once he does nominate his own choices, he will have to win confirmation of each of them from the Senate.
This isn’t like George W. Bush’s US attorney firing scandal — so far as we know
A scandal would arise if particular US attorneys were fired after their appointment, because they won’t do the White House’s political bidding — as happened in the US attorney firing scandal of George W. Bush’s second term.
The 94 US attorneys are the Justice Department’s top federal prosecutors, with each getting responsibility for overseeing a state or district. The tradition is that they operate somewhat independently, overseeing investigations and deciding where to focus resources and bring prosecutions, and serving until they choose to resign.
But on certain politically charged topics, like voting rights or corruption, US attorneys can run afoul of the White House. That seems to be what happened for Bush, where top Justice Department officials worked with the White House to draw up a list of seven particular US attorneys to fire in late 2006. (Some were allegedly targeted because the White House felt they had not adequately prosecuted “voter fraud” cases.)
An investigation ensued in 2007, and eventually resulted in the resignation of several top Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Top White House adviser Karl Rove also resigned under a cloud during this time. But the current situation doesn’t seem all that similar to that one.