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Virginia Tech expert says president's call for mass resignations of U.S. attorneys is unusual, but not completely unprecedented

March 12, 2017

Karen Hult

Karen Hult
Karen Hult

White House transition expert Karen Hult said the demand by President Trump for 46 U.S. attorneys to resign is unusual in several respects, including that none of them were apparently notified more than a day ahead of time or allowed to create any plan for transitioning office.

Hult, chair of the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, said replacing people in these positions is expected following a change in presidents, especially with a change in the party in power.

"What’s unusual in this case is that they had little opportunity to inform their staffs or to focus on cases in process, nor were they allowed to stay in place until their successor was nominated and confirmed, as happened under Obama," Hult said.

"Even more striking, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Manhattan, Preet Bharara, evidently was asked to stay in place by then-President-elect Trump but then was asked to resign on Friday, which he refused to do."

Bharara posted on Twitter that he was eventually fired.

Hult noted the The New York Times’ reporting that Bharara received a call from the White House on Thursday, evidently to speak with President Trump. As is standard protocol, Bharara did not speak with anyone from the White House but reported the contact to the Attorney General’s chief of staff, who then informed the White House of the call’s inappropriateness.

"At the very least, this suggests neglect or ignorance of the accepted firewall — dating at least from the post-Watergate era — between the Justice Department and anyone in the White House, except those from the White House counsel’s office."

Hult said the attention this series of events is receiving recalls 2007, when then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales fired eight Republican U.S. attorneys.

"Again, the specter of politicization and lack of independence of U.S. attorneys is in the spotlight," Hult said. "Less clear is whether this is the result of continuing transition difficulties, of communication problems within the White House or between the White House and cabinet officials, or of a more coordinated strategy to guide administration policy."

About Hult
Hult serves on the board of the nonpartisan White House Transition Project, which provides information to new White House staffers about making the shift from campaigning to governing, and sharing knowledge of what works and what doesn't from one presidency to the next. She has served as a contributing scholar providing briefing materials to the White House Counsel's Office and the White House Office of the Staff Secretary for transitions dating to 2000. Hult is the author or co-author of four books, including two on the evolution of the White House staff.

Her research and teaching at Virginia Tech focuses on organizational and institutional theories, the U.S. presidency, executive branch bureaucracies, the U.S. judiciary, social science research methodologies, and state and local politics and policy.

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