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Preet Bharara on what justice means in the age of Trump

Preet Bharara on justice, Mueller report
Preet Bharara: In the age of Trump, step back and consider "what justice means" 05:52

Preet Bharara, who was fired by President Trump after refusing to resign as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Monday that when investigating cases, one should always keep an open mind, because you never know where the evidence will lead.

"You can't have a thesis in advance," he said. "Sometimes you go down the path and you think you're going to find criminality and it turns out not to be so. Sometimes you're gonna go down the path you think is a long shot, and you end up being able to prove a case," he said on "CBS This Morning."

"I think in this age of Trump, when people jump to conclusions and people chant 'Lock her up' and 'Lock him up,' it's good to take a step back and think about what justice means – how it's done, how it's thwarted, what fair-mindedness means, what due process is."

Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, author of "Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law." CBS News

The popular appreciation of those standards, he said, has been "lost the last couple of years." 

Bharara's new book, "Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law" (Knopf), draws on his decades of legal experience to shed light on how the country's justice system works.

Bharara had successfully prosecuted several high-profile cases during his time with the Southern District of New York, including Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, Suleiman Abu Ghaith; the attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad; and the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

He said that making assumptions – such as about the unfolding story about last week's murder of the alleged boss of the Gambino crime family on Staten Island – can lead to trouble.

He also noted that prosecutors are often both fascinated and repulsed by the criminal activity they are investigating.

"You have to be interested in the subject matter," he said. "Lots of my favorite movies are mob movies. And I wanted to be a mob prosecutor, and I was when I was a line assistant. I thought when the assassination [of Francesco "Franky boy" Cali] happened, like everyone else you think it must be a mob war when the head of the Gambino crime family is shot to death outside of his home. But as I point out in the book repeatedly over and over again, things are not always what they seem. 

"Sometimes you think that a person committed a crime and that's where all the leads point, that's what common sense tells you – that can get you in a lot of trouble. There can be miscarriages of justice. It looks like, again, we should remain with an open mind. But maybe it had something to do with a love interest and have nothing do with mob warfare." 


"You say ask a lot of questions – there's no such thing as a dumb question," said co-host Gayle King.

"It's very true," he said. "I think it's true if you're a new person in the job, like a rookie assistant U.S. Attorneys. I used to say, 'A suppressed question in the case is worse than a suppressed piece of evidence.' Because the only way you can get true knowledge about subject matter and make sure that you understand what you're saying when you get information from someone else is to ask questions, not just smart questions but basic questions."

Bharara was also asked about conflicting reports that the investigation of the Special Counsel's office, lead by Robert Mueller, is winding down soon. He said he is skeptical of rumors that a final report is near, and warned against jumping to conclusion too quickly.

"On the one hand, Andrew Weissmann, who is a top deputy, is leaving. There are lots of people who are reporting – who I presume have decent sources and are very smart – it's winding down. But then on the other hand you have Rick Gates, whose sentencing has been postponed yet again, for the fifth time. In a letter submitted on Friday it said that he's continuing to cooperate in not one but several investigations. 

"That makes it seem like the work of the special counsel is not done."

Bharara was also asked about the Southern District of New York, which is currently pursuing investigations into Mr. Trump and his organization.

"The special counsel's office's mission was circumscribed by what Rod Rosenstein, the acting attorney general in this case, said they could look at, including Russian collusion and things that arose from the investigation," he said.

The Southern District prosecutors, on the other hand, "are not circumscribed by anything. They can look at crime as they see fit. They can bring a case against anyone they think that justice needs to be served. They don't care how powerful you are, they don't care what party you're from, they don't care what your assets are. They're tough and aggressive and independent.

Co-host Norah O'Donnell asked, "The Southern District of New York, currently has at least four investigations [into President Trump] that we know about – campaign conspiracy in the Trump Organization, inauguration funding, Trump's Super PAC funding, and foreign lobbying. Is that a lot on one person in their organization?"

"They can handle it; they can walk and chew gum at the same time," Bharara replied. "They do hundreds of investigations, and there are lots and lots of talented people. Some of the best people that I've ever met, [who] are the unsung heroes in keeping New York safe, in keeping the country safe."

"Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law" by Preet Bharara (Knopf), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon.

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