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Why Did Donald Trump Fire the Most Famous Anti-Corruption Prosecutor in America?

Donald Trump promised to keep Preet Bharara, the US attorney in New York known for going after shady Democrats and Republicans alike. This weekend, the president changed his mind.

The only time I've seen him up close, Preet Bharara, the Indian American federal prosecutor who was fired by Donald Trump this weekend, was speaking at a forum in Manhattan about putting corrupt politicians in prison. It was March 2015, and Bharara had long before made a name for himself prosecuting Wall Street fat cats for insider trading while serving as the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, generally regarded as among the most powerful law enforcement jobs in the country. It's a role that, by virtue of America's media capital falling within his jurisdiction, comes with plenty of attention—the prosecutor has been covered rather flatteringly not once but twice in the New Yorker. When I saw him do his thing for an audience of a few dozen attorneys, law students, and journalists, Bharara was riding especially high, still basking in the glow of the recent arrest of State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who would be convicted on corruption charges and become the shiniest pelt on Bharara's metaphorical wall. (Silver is still appealing his case.) 

Despite long-standing complaints about the "swamp," it remains relatively rare to see high-profile politicians actually charged with corruption in America. But Bharara not only went after them, he won cases that meant long prison terms for Democrats like Silver and Republicans like Dean Skelos, the former leader of the State Senate. (Skelos is also appealing.) Bharara was the closest thing New York—and, arguably, the country—had to a genuine corruption buster with a national profile. 

Bharara's firing, which came after he refused to resign along with many of his fellow US attorneys on Friday, marks the end of a chapter during which he has been out to prove that yes, corruption matters, and Americans actually do care about it. 

"It's important because elected officials have power—state legislators have power, people in the executive branch have power, federal officials have power," Bharara told that room two years ago. "It's important also because public corruption, when it becomes pervasive, especially, undermines peoples' faith and confidence in democracy. It's hard, I will tell you, to overstate how corrosive it is, the fact that corruption and the perception of corruption over time. Because real people, real people who are supposed to be represented fairly and honestly, care about it. Our public corruption cases have more resonance than perhaps people even in this room might realize."

It's safe to say Preet Bharara did not see Donald Trump coming.

Back then, it seemed like a businessman with myriad potential conflicts of interest and a history of dubious corporate dealings and several allegations of sexual assault stood no shot at winning the presidency. The idea of a president enriching himself, or a top aide hawking the president's daughter's clothing brand with the power of the Oval Office, was still virtually unfathomable at that point. Seventy-five percent of Americans, according to a Gallup poll released around the time of Bharara's speech, believed there was widespread corruption across government—a sentiment that Trump, ironically, tapped into with all his talk of "crooked Hillary" and denunciations of DC. 

It's normal for an incoming administration to get rid of the previous crop of US attorneys. But Bharara was prominent enough that his firing can be seen as a declaration that taking on political corruption will be even less of a priority from here on out.

"You have somebody [in Trump] who bragged about bribing public officials," Eugene O'Donnell, a former Brooklyn cop and prosecutor, says of Trump firing Bharara. "For rank and file law enforcement people, what a terrible ethical message the guy is sending out, which is the government is there to be used and abused. Business can contribute and leverage its contributions for personal benefit. This is what the president has said. The president has said that. So I don't find it shocking that—probably one of the few US attorneys in the country who's systemically dismantling a state that's been rife with corruption—that he would remove the guy."

Watch our profile of a former British undercover cop who worked police corruption cases.

Part of why Bharara's removal became such a big story is that he met personally with Trump after the election and was reportedly asked to stay on. After all, the prosecutor's office is still set to go to trial against some of Governor Andrew Cuomo's top former aides and is also investigating alleged corruption on part of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. These are Democrats, and men Trump personally might enjoy seeing fry. Then again, Trump has a fairly flexible policy when it comes to promises.

"The way he was fired—after being promised the job—that's a direct assault on the norms that hold us together," Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham law professor who literally wrote the book on corruption in America and was in the audience for Bharara's speech that day, told me in an email.

Of course, there's still a lot we don't know here, the most obvious thing being whether Bharara's office was investigating Trump himself. If the president's wild Twitter tirade about being wiretapped in his Manhattan home were actually true, Bharara—as the relevant federal prosecutor—likely would have been aware of it. Some outlets have quickly run with that angle, leaning on a tweet Bharara fired off a few hours after his removal that suggests he was prevented from finishing his job. But leaving Trump himself aside, some of the most powerful people in New York may have just gotten off the hook. Roger Ailes, for instance, has been wrapped up in a probe of FOX News for alleged spying and sexual harassment; according to a New York report this weekend, a grand jury had been impaneled and was mulling charges against executives.

One thing's for sure: Bharara's firing is a victory for people with lots of money and something to hide. 

"There's probably more champagne being consumed in Albany and New York City than in Wrigleyville in October [after the World Series]," O'Donnell said.

Follow Matt Taylor on Twitter.