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President Trump often expresses disdain for law enforcement agencies investigating him. The Southern District of New York has attracted particular ire, with Trump firing the U.S. attorney heading it in 2017. Judy Woodruff talks to that U.S. attorney, Preet Bharara, about his new book, “Doing Justice,” how the justice system was intended to work and whether its credibility is being jeopardized.
Special counsel Robert Mueller and his team are not the only arm of the Justice Department investigating the president. The Southern District of New York is leading probes into hush money payments made by Mr. Trump's former lawyer, and it's involved in investigating donations to the president's inauguration.
Preet Bharara was the U.S. attorney in charge of the Southern District, until Mr. Trump fired him. Bharara is out with a new book, "Doing Justice."
I spoke with him just a short time ago.
Preet Bharara, welcome to the "NewsHour."
With this book, you essentially walk us through the work you have done as the chief prosecutor in New York's federal district.
So, my question to you is, you know, you have explained to us how the justice system works. Is that justice system doing the job that it should right now for the American people?
Thanks, Judy. It's good to be here.
You know, in some ways, it is, and, in some ways, it isn't. I think the men and women of the Southern District of New York that I led for seven-and-a-half years, and lots of other great folks throughout law enforcement, at the FBI, at the Department of Justice, and in local DA's offices and state attorney general's offices, keep their head down.
They do the work that they have always done in the way that they have always done it, under the mantra that we used to talk about in the Southern District, which is to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons.
I'm not so concerned about the individuals who carry out the mission of justice in all those offices. I am concerned about the ways in which those kinds of efforts have become politicized and the ways in which some people sort of substitute their political preferences for what evidence and reason and facts and the law might ultimately support.
So, one of the reasons I wrote the book was to sort of take a step back, and in this time of turmoil, where people are treated to phrases like truth isn't truth or alternative facts, it's good to see how the justice system is supposed to work when it properly operates, but also to point out how difficult it is sometimes and how the ethical decisions that people on the ground have to make every day are sometimes not so easy.
Has it been undermined under this administration?
Yes, I think faith in law enforcement has been undermined by this administration.
And it comes from a simple reason. And that is, we happen to be in a situation where the president of the United States, his conduct has fallen into question, and people around him have been investigated, some of them prosecuted. People very close to him, like Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, are going to prison because they engaged in criminal conduct.
And these are the kinds of people the president has chosen to associate himself with and to be around. And so there's a reason why the president has adopted a very direct strategy — and they're very blatant about it — of undermining and attacking the people who are engaged in that investigation.
I think that's a dangerous thing, because, at the end of the day, you want people to have faith and confidence in institutions.
You were fired from your job running the Southern District of New York in March of 2017, two days after you got a call from President Trump. You declined to answer that call, on the advice of the Justice Department.
After you have looked back, reflected on that, was the president trying to improperly influence you?
I have no idea if he was trying to improperly influence me with that phone call.
It's a very peculiar thing for — the president, when he was president-elect, called me twice, then called me once when he was actually the president. It's a very peculiar thing for the sitting president of the United States, who is from New York, who has businesses in New York, who has interests in New York, who has a foundation in New York, to try to cultivate a relationship with the local prosecutor, with whom he didn't have any preexisting relationship.
It's not done. I have not heard of it. I don't know that he was calling any other U.S. attorney in the country.
And given what we know since then, that the president has asked people to lay off on folks that are his political allies, and in some cases to go after people who are his political adversaries — Michael Flynn in the first instance, and Hillary Clinton in the second instance — I look back on my decision not to return the call and not to have any kind of relationship with the president, other than something at arm's length, as a good one, because, over time, I think it would have undermined my credibility.
It would have undermined his credibility. And I think it's not good for the justice system.
Well, with regard to the investigations into the president, Robert Mueller, the Southern District of New York, of course, where you are, do you believe the president is more vulnerable when it comes to the Russia — potential Russia connection, or was it — or more vulnerable with regard to campaign violations or with regard to his business dealings?
You forgot about obstruction. So there's another category of thing as well.
I don't know. And I think people underestimate how much they don't know about what Bob Mueller has been looking at. And we have been surprised over the course of the last couple of years when indictments come down. And a lot of people are speculating it's ending soon. I don't know that that's the case.
There's another round of rumors that I have heard today from people who are connected who think that they think — who think that something is happening this week.
The one thing we do know with respect to the various categories of investigation you mentioned is that there's one area, campaign finance violation, where there has been a guilty plea on the part of Michael Cohen, who said that he committed this crime, who's prepared to go to prison for committing that crime, and who said in open court that he did that crime in coordination with and at the direction of Individual 1, who is President Trump.
And that was endorsed by the court. And it seems to have been endorsed by my prior office. So, you have much more in the record with respect to vulnerability on a criminal level with respect to Donald Trump on that than anything else, at least that we know about.
Do you have a sense — obviously, there's a lot we don't know about what Robert Mueller is doing, but do you have a sense of, when his report is issued, what will we have answers to and what questions will still be hanging out there?
My sense is — and I have said this, just based on my observation of how the Mueller team has operated — that it will be thorough and lengthy, but it's possible it could be no scant and sparse.
And if that's the case, we won't learn as much. I do think, ultimately, it'll be very difficult for the public not to learn at least what Mueller decided on various things, especially with respect to the president, who has the benefit of the shield of immunity from prosecution, essentially, because of this somewhat longstanding policy of the Justice Department and practice that a sitting president can't be indicted.
And you referred to this a moment ago. The final Mueller report may not — may open questions that still have to be looked at.
How real a possibility do you think that is?
Yes, I think it's not insubstantial.
There are lots of ways in which the president can fight the release of some information. I have heard reports that they plan to use the cudgel of executive privilege pretty sharply. And some might say, well, that doesn't seem to make sense, because the information was already given to Bob Mueller. They should have raised that protective argument at that time.
It sounds like they reserve that right. I think, at the end of the day, it will be a political solution. If the report is very, very damaging to the president, it's going to be very difficult, politically, to keep that away from Congress.
If, on the other hand, the report is ultimately not so damaging to the president, particularly on these issues that people call collusion or conspiracy or collaboration in some way on election interference, then it may be Bill Barr and President Trump will be running to give it to Congress and declare victory and exoneration, which the president does from time to time, even when documents don't exonerate him.
But I think it'll be an interesting fight to watch. It depends on how damaging it is. And we will have to stay tuned.
We will certainly stay tuned. Interesting fight to watch.
Preet Bharara. The book is "Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law."
We thank you.
Thanks, Judy. Thank you.
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