WASHINGTON • A prominent United States prosecutor said the Trump administration fired him after he refused to step down, adding a discordant note to what is normally a routine changing of top attorneys when a new president takes office.
The defiant exit of New York's US Attorney Preet Bharara, first announced on Twitter, raised questions about President Donald Trump's ability to fill top jobs throughout his government.
Mr Trump has yet to put forward any candidates to serve as the nation's 93 district attorneys, even as his Justice Department asked the 46 who have not yet quit to hand in their resignations last Friday. Key positions at agencies like the State Department and the Defence Department also remain unfilled.
As the federal prosecutor for Manhattan and surrounding areas since 2009, Mr Bharara secured insider-trading settlements from Wall Street firms and won criminal convictions in high-profile corruption and terrorism cases.
CHAOS YET AGAIN
President Trump's abrupt and unexplained decision to summarily remove over 40 US attorneys has once again caused chaos in the federal government.
NEW YORK ATTORNEY-GENERAL ERIC SCHNEIDERMAN
He told reporters in November last year that Mr Trump had asked him to stay in his post, and he refused to resign when asked to do so by the Justice Department last Friday. He said that he was fired on Saturday afternoon.
"Serving my country as US Attorney here for the past seven years will forever be the greatest honour of my professional life, no matter what else I do or how long I live," Mr Bharara said in a press statement.
The Justice Department confirmed that Mr Bharara was no longer serving in the position and declined further comment.
Like all US district attorneys, Mr Bharara is a political appointee who can be replaced when a new president takes office. Previous presidents have often asked outgoing US attorneys to stay on the job until their replacements win confirmation in the Senate.
The Washington Post, citing two people close to Mr Trump, said that the President's adviser Stephen Bannon and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions wanted a clean slate of federal prosecutors to assert the administration's power.
The decision to replace so many sitting attorneys at once has raised questions about whether the Trump administration's ability to enforce the nation's laws would be hindered.
"President Trump's abrupt and unexplained decision to summarily remove over 40 US attorneys has once again caused chaos in the federal government," said New York Attorney-General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that the firings showed "the independence of the Justice Department is at risk under this administration" and that lawmakers had to carefully evaluate Mr Trump's replacements.
Mr Bharara said that his deputy, Mr Joon Kim, will serve as his temporary replacement. Mr Marc Mukasey, a defence lawyer whose father served as Attorney-General under Republican President George W. Bush, has been mentioned as a possible replacement. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Mr Bharara's office handles some of the most critical corporate and criminal cases passing through the federal judicial system.
Mr Bharara has been overseeing a probe into New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's fund-raising.
He has successfully prosecuted state and local politicians for corruption, including former New York Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver. He also won a life sentence against Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and a 25-year sentence for international arms dealer Viktor Bout.
He won a US$1.8 billion (S$2.54 billion) insider-trading settlement against SAC Capital Advisors, the largest in history, which forced the hedge fund to shut down, and forced JPMorgan Chase to pay US$1.7 billion to settle charges related to its role in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.