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NEW YORK — In his first public appearance since his surprise firing, former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara on Thursday launched into an impassioned defense of his tenure as U.S. attorney while lobbing veiled criticisms at the Trump administration.
He told a packed audience at New York City's Cooper Union he was most proud of the impartiality of his former office.
"Independence and upholding the rule of law is more vital than a gun, a badge, or law degree," he said of the U.S. Attorney’s role. “We should never be a rubber stamp for the White House."
On March 10, Bharara refused to tender his resignation along with 45 other attorneys who were holdovers from the Obama administration.
The White House said that it was typical for a new administration to ask all U.S. attorneys appointed by the previous administration to resign.
But Bharara took to Twitter, telling his followers: "I did not resign. Moments ago I was fired. Being the U.S. Attorney in SDNY [the Southern District of New York] will forever be the greatest honor of my professional life."
It was a stunning public showdown between Bharara and the Trump administration. In November, after winning the presidential election, then president-elect Trump asked Bharara to stay on as U.S. Attorney in a personal meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
Bharara began his speech with a lighthearted crack at President Trump’s sudden reversal. “I thought he’d be comfortable doing what he does best," Bharara said, referring to Trump’s propensity to fire contestants on "The Apprentice."
But Bharara turned serious when discussing the current political climate in the United States. A naturalized U.S. citizen born in India, Bharara spoke passionately about the need for tolerance in American public life. With his parents in the audience, Bharara told the crowd that, "throughout history intolerant people have always found a way to make certain people feel unwelcome."
Bharara, 48, who started a job as a distinguished scholar in residence at NYU School of Law said he has no plans to enter politics: “Just like I have no plans to join the circus — and I mean no offense to the circus.”
Earlier in the day, The New York Times published an interview with Bharara, in which he discussed how Trump, as president, engaged in the unusual practice of contacting him directly over the phone shortly before his abrupt dismissal. Bharara, citing ethical concerns, did not return his phone calls.
In that interview, he blamed his firing on the "helter-skelter incompetence" of the Trump Administration.
Dubbed "Wall Street’s top cop," Bharara built a reputation for his aggressive prosecutions of high-profile white collar and public corruption cases. Bharara led the prosecution and conviction of billionaire hedge-fund trader Raj Rajaratnam, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison — the longest sentence ever for insider trading. He also won a record $1.8 billion settlement in an insider trading case against billionaire Steven A. Cohen’s SAC Capital Advisors.
In addition, Bharara successfully prosecuted Albany politicians for public corruption, winning praise for his apolitical approach. His convictions included former Assemblyman Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and then-Senate majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican.
Since the public showdown between Bharara and the Trump Administration, three Democratic Senators, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, Sen. Jeffrey Merkley, D-Oregon, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, have asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to provide "greater clarity on the circumstances under which Mr. Bharara was fired."