Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked dozens of U.S. attorneys to submit resignation letters in order to make way for the appointment of prosecutors nominated by President Trump.
“As was the case in prior transitions, many of the United States attorneys nominated by the previous administration already have left the Department of Justice,” said DOJ spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores in a statement issued Friday. “The attorney general has now asked the remaining 46 presidentially appointed U.S. attorneys to tender their resignations in order to ensure a uniform transition.”
Such turnover is typical at the start of a new presidential administration, with prosecutors who head the 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country often leaving at the outset of a new administration. Many of those offices are already being overseen by acting or interim prosecutors in the wake of the previous departures of U.S. attorneys.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to provide a timeline of when Mr. Trump would accept the resignations that were requested — or to confirm whether he intends to accept some resignations at all. Once resignation letters are received, prosecutors could potentially be let go one-by-one as new nominations for their positions are proposed or they could be be fired en masse.
It was unclear how the resignation letters of several high-profile prosecutors would be handled.
Among the presidentially-appointed and Senate confirmed U.S. attorneys who were asked to submit resignation letters are the Justice Department’s current acting deputy attorney general Dana Boente, who was appointed the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia under President Obama; and Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland who was nominated by Mr. Trump to be deputy attorney general under Mr. Sessions.
A confirmation hearing for Mr. Rosenstein, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and allowed to remain on during the Obama administration, was held this week.
Also unclear is whether Mr. Trump intends to accept the resignation letter of Preet Bharara, the Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney for the District of Southern New York, whom the president previously asked to stay on.
Presidents have dealt differently with prosecutors who remaining in their positions after the start of new administrations.
“It has a really checkered history,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
At the start of President Bill Clinton’s term, Attorney General Janet Reno asked for the resignation of all 93 U.S. Attorneys. George W. Bush’s administration faced controversy over the 2006 removal of nine U.S. attorneys, with questions raised over whether the resignations were intended to influence certain prosecutions. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama kept on some prosecutors appointed by President George W. Bush until replacements had been nominated and confirmed.
“Obama was a little more measured and seemed to want to have a smoother transition, some stayed on quite awhile,” Mr. Tobias said.
He rated the Trump administration’s actions as “somewhere in the middle” in terms of the level of overall disruptiveness to the U.S. attorney’s offices.
“It’s still somewhat disruptive,” Mr Tobias said, noting the time it can take to get a nominee approved by the Senate.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein saw the resignation requests differently, saying she was concerned “about the effect of this sudden and unexpected decision on federal law enforcement.”
“Under previous administrations, orderly transitions allowed U.S. attorneys to leave gradually as their replacements were chosen. This was done to protect the independence of our prosecutors and avoid disrupting ongoing federal cases,” Mrs. Feinstein said. “In January, I met with Vice President Pence and White House Counsel Donald McGahn and asked specifically whether all U.S. attorneys would be fired at once. Mr. McGahn told me that the transition would be done in an orderly fashion to preserve continuity. Clearly this is not the case.”
In the statement issued Friday, Ms. Flores said that until new U.S. attorneys are confirmed, the “dedicated career prosecutors in our U.S. Attorney’s Offices will continue the great work of the Department in investigating, prosecuting, and deterring the most violent offenders.”
Given the time it takes to vet nominees, including conducting background checks, and schedule Senate hearings, Mr. Tobias said it could be months before new permanent prosecutors are installed.
“I wouldn’t be optimistic that we would see any appointed before the summer,” he said.