Preet Bharara Discusses Value of Civic Engagement at Brown University Lecture

by Anuj Krishnamurthy '19, Storytellers Fellowship
December 5, 2017

Preet Bharara, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, prefers to be transparent about how he lost his job.  

“Either out of some form of decorum or etiquette — which I fully appreciate — the person who introduces me never actually indicates how it is that I came to be in the private sector,” he said, at the outset of the Oct. 30, 2017 Noah Krieger '93 Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Taubman Center, that filled Friedman Auditorium to capacity. “So for those of you, by way of introduction, I was fired by the president of the United States.”

Since his departure from the U.S. Attorney’s office, where he earned a reputation for aggressively prosecuting white collar crime — the Showtime drama "Billions" is modeled, in part, after his work — Bharara has switched gears. Now a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the New York University of School of Law, he hosts his own podcast, "Stay Tuned with Preet," and conducts interviews with influential officials and legislators.  

Despite his abrupt career transition, it is clear that Bharara’s commitment to serving in the public interest has remained unscathed. “Public service has been the most important work that I’ve ever done in my life,” he said at the lecture.

The role of service in American life

As a federal prosecutor, Bharara proved himself “one of the nation’s most aggressive and outspoken prosecutors of public corruption and Wall Street crime,” according to the New York Times. His office went after Democratic and Republican members of the New York State Legislature; investigated billionaire hedge-fund managers Steven Cohen and Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading; and probed New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign fundraising.

Still, Bharara seems to harbor no ill feelings about his termination. “It doesn’t matter who the president of the United States is,” he said. “Your duty and allegiance is not to a particular person, even if that’s been asked for. Your duty and allegiance is to the Constitution, to the public, and to your oath of office.”

Bharara further urged Americans who are frustrated by the current administration to not let their political persuasions preclude them from becoming civically engaged. “If everyone of goodwill and good faith and good conscience who cares about the country says, ‘I don’t want to serve because I don’t like this president,’ …then I think you lose something,” Bharara said.

His experience as an immigrant substantially informed his decision to work for the federal government.

“Public service is important and giving back to your country is important,” Bharara said. “I think it’s especially an important obligation for people who have a lot of privilege, and I feel like I’ve had more privilege than most people because I wasn’t born in this country.”

Bharara was born in 1968 in Firozpur, Punjab – a “town,” by south Asian standards, on India’s western border. His parents were both born in Pakistan to large families. During the violent partition of India, which divided the former British colony into two nations, they departed for India, along with millions of other migrants. Soon after Bharara was born, the family moved to Asbury Park, New Jersey, where his father practiced pediatric medicine. Quickly, Bharara was able to capitalize on the American dream: He attended Harvard, and then Columbia Law School, before joining the Southern District of New York as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.

“There are times when public service is even more important than other times,” he said. “I think that time is now,” he said. “There is no time that at least I can think of in my adult life where people of conscience who care about their country… and care about, simply, helping people who are more disadvantaged than they are … have ever been more needed in America and around the world.”

Protecting American institutions and norms

Bharara spent much of his lecture diagnosing large-scale developments in American politics since the election of President Donald J. Trump last November. “Our president, Donald Trump, does have a well-documented penchant for strongmen,” he said. “He has, kind of authoritarian, crushes, if you will.”

These authoritarian inclinations may have led Trump to ignore vile acts of oppression — even those conducted on American soil, Bharara said, referring to the incident in May when bodyguards of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attacked protesters in Washington, D.C. In August, when a car crashed into counter-protesters at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Trump faced criticism for denouncing violence “from many sides.” Alt-right activists, however, rejoiced in his statements. Andrew Anglin, founder of The Daily Stormer, wrote that Trump “implied that there was hate… on both sides. So he implied the antifa are haters.”

In the face of these glaring violations of long-cherished American values — hostility toward autocrats and Nazis, chief among them — Trump’s silence was troubling, a potential symptom of an ideological agenda unsuitable for democracy, Bharara said.

Against this political backdrop, “are institutions resilient?” Bharara asked. “Can they hold their own? Can rule of law prevail? What does that even mean? What does that mean today?”

Bharara is hopeful. Three co-equal branches of government, a vibrant press, and a stable, two-party system make the unencumbered consolidation and arbitrary exercise of power difficult, he said.

“Structurally, the press remains fairly free,” Bharara said. “[Trump] can undermine the press, he can undermine people’s confidence in the press, he can attack reporters by name, he can tweet about them, but he can’t undo the First Amendment.”

Bharara also expressed confidence in the judiciary, adding “the president can threaten, cajole, mock, intimidate, and do all those things, but the judges have the most valuable thing that you can have in this situation – they have life tenure.”

But Bharara did observe that these institutional practices, while codified in law, are not immune to subversion by alternative means. “When there are structural protections for these other branches, or for these other ways of talking and being and acting, there’s little the president can do,” he said. “But there’s a whole other regime that governs and regulates conduct in the government — and those are called norms. And norms, by definition, are soft.”

One such norm is prosecutorial independence — the concept that elected leaders and officeholders cannot manipulate prosecutors into investigating certain individuals or entities and ignoring others. “The principle of prosecutorial independence, which I had devoted my professional life to, is not in the Constitution,” Bharara said. “It’s not even something that everyone understands, appreciates, or respects. It has been preserved over time by tradition, by devotion to principle, and by common sense.”

Looking to the future

Bharara acknowledged that the public opinion undergirding Trump’s meteoric ascendance in American politics cannot be ignored. “It is true that people want change. That’s why Obama got elected. That’s also why Trump got elected,” he said. “The question is what kind of change and how much do people want reform.”

How that vision of change is developed and articulated — and not merely the desire for change itself — remains a critical element of democratic elections. “Words matter, signals matter, values matter,” Bharara said.

And who is responsible for formulating and implementing that change is just as important. In that context, Americans eager to work in the public interest are indispensable, he said.

“I think there is value and need for people who care about the country to think about government service,” Bharara said.