For the past seven years, and until this March, Preet Bharara served as the phenomenally successful US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Due to its jurisdiction, the post is one of the most important prosecutorial roles in America. Bharara earned a reputation as a fearless, non-partisan pursuer of financial malfeasance, public corruption, and terrorism. He won a record 85 straight insider-trading convictions – the Elliot Ness of Wall Street.
On Tuesday, he gave a speech at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government. I went along, I confess, hoping for some juicy insights into the demonic inner workings of the Trump circle. And I got them. Bharara spoke of being summoned to Trump Tower – also in his jurisdiction – in November last year where, faced with the unholy trinity of the new president-elect, Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, and expecting to be fired, he was instead asked to stay on. He agreed to do so, as long as he was able to continue his work unmolested. Then, on March 11, with no reason given – though he wryly referred to “President Bannon” – he was abruptly dismissed.
But if I came for the anecdotes, I stayed for the uplifting discussion about public-service values and moral courage. Bharara’s personal integrity shone through – it was easy to see why there was no place for him in this administration.
He had explained to Trump at their meeting that his loyalty was to the US constitution and the law, not to any given president. He spoke to us worriedly about Trump’s “authoritarian crushes”, his “penchant for strongmen” such as Putin, Erdogan and Duterte: “I don’t know why one needs to go out of one’s way repeatedly and directly to lavish praise not only on certain leaders but on the very practices and policies that would be anathema to freedom and democracy in most Western countries. Words matter, signals matter, values matter.”
If we currently see too much of America at its worst, Bharara’s speech was a window into that great country at its best. His commitment to upholding the word and spirit of the constitution, to public service and the rule of law, his obvious humility – he insisted more than once that Trump was perfectly entitled to fire him and that his comments did not stem from personal animus – made the heart ache for a world we’re no longer living in.
There is clearly and creditably a point past which the US judicial system refuses to flex any further. As a friend and long-standing colleague of the sacked FBI director James Comey, Bharara expressed his unhappiness at the role played in that dismissal by Rod Rosenstein, the US Deputy Attorney General, but pointed out that Rosenstein had gone on to appoint another former FBI director, Robert Mueller, as special counsel to oversee the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. He had faith that if good people behaved as they should, the US could ride out this democratic crisis.
As Trump continues to use the world order as his personal pinball machine, more of our leaders need to access their inner Bharara. The President’s decision to line up with Syria and Nicaragua by pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change – an accord supported by 71 per cent of Americans and more than 1,000 major US corporations – was the latest indication that his administration has no interest in the nation’s historic role of leading the world, either in fact or by example. Indeed, Trump seems to be steering it towards pariah status.
Angela Merkel is by now a barnacle-encrusted participant in global affairs, and so when she said this week, following a G7 summit with Trump, that ‘”recent days have shown me that the times when we could rely completely on others are over to a certain extent,” she wasn’t just playing to the gallery. We can all see the shift coming, as the US deliberately pulls back and the Chinese willingly step forward. Europe has some big choices to make. It’s not clear it can afford to wait and see whether the US eventually rights itself.
The consistently impressive Emmanuel Macron – who last week denounced the Kremlin propaganda outlets of Russia Today and Sputnik while Putin glowered at his side – today spoke out against the Trump withdrawal from the Paris accord, and he did so in English, not a habit of past French presidents. Calling France a “second homeland” for disillusioned American scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and “responsible citizens… disappointed by the decision of the president of the United States,” he asked them to “come and work here with us, together on solutions for our climate. We all share the same responsibility to make our planet great again.” A-grade geopolitical trolling, but brave too.
Now, the UK’s relationship with the US is not that of our continental cousins. Nonetheless, the silence from the British Government in the hours following Trump’s announcement, and the failure of Theresa May to respond publicly and robustly, wasn’t a great look. Perhaps, due to Brexit and the subsequent need for a trade agreement with the US, she fears irritating the man-child in the White House. Perhaps she called him privately and delivered a dressing down. Perhaps it’s just not how she rolls. But there must, surely, come a point at which we stand on our national dignity, like the others.
In 1966, Bobby Kennedy travelled to apartheid South Africa to deliver his famous “Ripples of Hope” speech. He told students at the University of Cape Town that “few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice. He sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.”
Words for our time. The good guys need to tell the bad guys that they are in fact the bad guys. They need to shove back. We in the UK need to be clear about who we are and what we’re for. As Preet Bharara says, words matter, signals matter, values matter. Without integrity, without moral courage, we don’t really amount to very much at all.