For UNLV law students in the room Monday night, Preet Bharara’s affirmation of their chosen profession was likely welcome news.
“This is as important a time as there ever has been to be schooled in the legal profession,” Bharara told a Boyd School of Law crowd of about 200. “Whether you serve on the defense side or the prosecution side, pro bono or no, fidelity (to), appreciation of and respect of the law means more now than I think it ever has before.”
The former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Bharara has ascended into the national spotlight since his firing by President Donald Trump. He spoke in the Richard Tam Alumni Center on UNLV’s campus to students, alumni and community members, including former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, as part of the school’s Distinguished Speaker Series.
Bharara spoke about what the rule of law means under Trump’s presidency and how checks and balances will play out in the coming months and years. He said that the checking institutions of the press, Congress and the courts are strong and that concerns about the news media being muzzled by Trump are “overstated.”
However, he’s concerned about the executive branch.
“How can an executive check itself if it begins to wander away from the ideal rule of law and the independent functioning of law enforcement?” Bharara said.
Bharara said the independent function of the rule of law is under assault, as evidenced, he said, by the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
“It is undermining to this independent sense of what this law enforcement function is, when the president fired the FBI director in the way he did, giving the reasons he did,” Bharara said. “That’s something you’ve not seen before.”
Bharara also shared his own story of meeting with Trump, who was still the president-elect at the time, when he was asked to stay on as U.S. attorney. Trump then called him three times, the last time on March 9.
“At no time did Donald Trump ever tell me ‘Do this thing’ or ‘Don’t do that thing,’ but … when he called me on March 9 of this year, I didn’t return the phone call,” he said. “Even if it was an innocuous call, what was going to be said about that call later is why I elected not to call.”
Twenty hours later, Bharara was asked to resign. He refused and then was fired.
“I had a belief over time (that) if I continued to speak with him … there would have come something that was inappropriate,” he said. “Of all the things I’ve done, I’m most proud of not returning that phone call.”