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'You're fired': Experts confirm Trump's dismissal of 46 U.S. attorneys was totally normal

FILE - In this May 14, 2013, file photo, the Department of Justice headquarters building in Washington is photographed early in the morning. . (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

Immediate outrage over any action taken by President Donald Trump has become the new normal, so it wasn't a surprise to see a wave of criticism follow the administration's call for the resignations of the remaining 46 U.S. attorneys appointed by Barack Obama.

Within President Trump's first month in office, 47 of the 93 U.S. attorneys offered their resignation. They were political appointees under Barack Obama and most if not all recognized the fact that after January 20, their days under the new administration were numbered. On Friday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered the message for the remaining attorneys to immediately step down from their posts.

This kind of house-cleaning at the Department of Justice is entirely typical for a new administration, even though different presidents have approached the matter in different ways. On Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer characterized the transition, saying it is "standard operating procedure for a new administration around this time to ask for the resignation of all the U.S. attorneys."

According to Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores, the remaining 46 attorneys were asked to resign "in order to ensure a uniform transition" at the department. The deputy U.S. attorneys, who are career officials and not political appointees, will step up and serve in an acting capacity.

Even though almost all of the Obama-era holdovers expected they would soon be out of a job, the message on Friday to clean out their desks still came as a surprise. Only two days before they were fired, the attorneys were on a conference call with Attorney General Sessions and according to one attorney dismissed last week, there were no early signals that they would be sacked.

Even more unusual was the demand for New York Southern District Attorney Preet Bharara to step down. Bharara was reportedly asked to stay on after meeting with President Trump in November. After being surprised with the Friday announcement, he challenged the request and did not submit his resignation. He was then fired.

Syracuse University law professor and former assistant U.S. attorney William C. Snyder made clear that all United States attorneys are presidential appointees who are typically replaced at the change of administration. "Any surprise at that is feigned." The way that process is done, however, differs depending on the administration.

Barack Obama gradually phased out his attorneys over time, as did George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. In those cases, many of the prosecutors either immediately submitted their resignations or the new administration requested them, but for the sake of continuity, not all the resignations were accepted. Some attorneys stayed on for up to two years under the new president until their successor was named and appointed by the Senate.

In the case of George H.W. Bush, he turned down a greater number of his attorneys resignation, choosing instead to allow a number of Reagan-era appointees to serve in his Justice Department.

Bill Clinton was a different story. He broke with tradition in an even more dramatic way than President Trump, firing all 93 U.S. attorneys in one day. In March 1993, Clinton's Attorney General, Janet Reno penned a similar letter to the one Sessions sent out on Friday calling for every attorney to submit his or her resignation.

"I remember it well," said Snyder, who was serving as an assistant U.S. attorney at the time. "I was with the person who was named Acting U.S. Attorney in the District of Columbia that afternoon, and he was completely shocked and surprised to have been named. He had received no contact from anyone about that, prior to the call from the White House advising that he was named Acting U.S. Attorney."

The man he was scheduled to replace, U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens, challenged the order to resign. The perception at the time was that his dismissal was politically motivated and intended to stop his ongoing investigation of a Clinton ally in Congress for financial crimes. Stephens, like Bharara, was ultimately fired and the scandal received ample press coverage at the time.

"The Clinton action in 1993 was viewed with outrage as a departure from the norm," Snyder explained.

After Clinton had set the precedent, George W. Bush followed suit. Shortly after being inaugurated Bush asked for the resignations of all the U.S. attorneys appointed under Clinton. Bush didn't face as severe criticism at the time, but he incited public outrage at the start of his second term after firing seven attorneys, an act that was viewed as an attempt to politicize the Justice Department.

William Yeomans worked for nearly 30 years at the Department of Justice and is currently a law professor at American University. He said the biggest concern in all of this "is the manipulation of the justice system for political ends, which is something we really need to avoid no matter who is in power."

Yeomans acknowledged that there is nothing abnormal about the new Trump administration replacing the attorneys, but the timing raises important questions.

"The timing seems very odd, because it was very sudden," he noted, suggesting something must have happened between Wednesday, when Sessions spoke with the attorneys during a conference call, and Friday when they were asked to resign. "It's almost as if there was a panic, like, we've got to get rid of these people, we've got to get them out of office."

Some pundits have suggested that the mass firing was possibly related to Sean Hannity's Thursday night show, where he urged the president to "purge" the Obama era-holdovers that he termed "saboteurs." The White House has rejected the theory.

Already, the Trump administration is likely facing investigations on a number of fronts. This includes a presumed Justice Department probe for possible ties to Russia during the campaign and transition period. Additionally, former Bush ethics lawyer, Richard Painter and his watchdog group, Citizens for Ethics Reform in Washington (CREW) brought a suit against Trump in the New York Southern District Court for allegedly violating the emoluments clause in the Constitution. There is also a possibility that Bharara was involved in an investigation related to Trump's claims that the Obama administration had wiretapped Trump Tower.

"The context here is very important because this president and this administration, they will be under investigation," Yeomans said. "So to have mass firings of U.S. attorneys in the middle of all of that has to raise eyebrows."

Despite the ousting of prosecutors on Friday, their offices will not be empty. The assistant attorneys will step into place, but the interruption of leadership could potentially come at a price.

"Investigations that are ongoing will continue," Yeomans advised, "but obviously you can put someone in place who can put an end to the investigation ... or can send them in different directions or can make key decisions that will end up in the closing of an investigation." Attorney General Sessions also has the authority to appoint a prosecutor to fill existing vacancies.

With career attorneys now serving in the top district seats around the country, Trump is likely to face an uphill battle in Congress. If he wants to fast-track the appointment of 93 prosecutors, he will have to get them confirmed by a Senate that has been painfully slow in approving even top cabinet positions.

Usually, the appointment of U.S. attorneys is not controversial. Each state and U.S. territory has at least one attorney, and it's the responsibility of that Senator to provide the president with recommendations for the position. The president is usually deferential to the senators and Senate collegiality generally helps reduce friction in the confirmation process. But like most things under Trump, it's going to be different this time.

"I think in this instance, given the unusual circumstances under which all of these people are being nominated, Democrats will probably take a much closer look than they have in the past," Yeomans said, estimating the entire nominating process could be more difficult than it has been previously.

So far, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is making preparations to ensure an orderly transition of power in the courts. "Knowing that a new president would seek to fill the U.S. attorney positions, I’ve been preparing and in the coming weeks will be forwarding to President Trump nominees to fill these positions," Grassley said on Monday.

Comparing Trump's approach to past administrations, Grassley noted, "Every president handles it in his own way."


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