WASHINGTON - The Biden administration on Tuesday asked the remaining U.S. attorneys appointed by President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate to submit their resignations, sparing only two federal prosecutors who are conducting politically sensitive probes, including of President Joe Biden’s son, according to a Justice Department news release and officials.
The resignations will not necessarily take effect immediately. The U.S. attorneys were told on a conference call that they would be allowed to stay until Feb. 28 and transition out, people familiar with the matter said. Still, the move generated some criticism from both sides of the political aisle.
Illinois’ two Democratic senators, Richard Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Tammy Duckworth, said in a joint statement they were “disappointed” that they were not consulted before the administration asked for the resignation of Chicago U.S. Attorney John Lausch, whose office has been pursuing a corruption case that has raised questions about a powerful state Democratic lawmaker.
“While the President has the right to remove U.S. Attorneys, there is precedent for U.S. Attorneys in the Northern District of Illinois to remain in office to conclude sensitive investigations,” the senators said. “We believe Mr. Lausch should be permitted to continue in his position until his successor is confirmed by the Senate, and we urge the Biden Administration to allow him to do so.”
Lausch’s office declined to comment.
Some conservatives questioned the move’s timing - which came just as impeachment proceedings against Trump began. Ian Prior, a former Justice Department spokesman in the Trump administration who now tracks moves in the Biden Justice Department, noted that when Jeff Sessions, Trump’s first attorney general, similarly asked for resignations from the remaining U.S. attorneys appointed by President Barack Obama, Democratic leaders cried foul.
“The Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, has the absolute right to request resignations of incumbent U.S. Attorneys,” Prior said. “What will be frustrating to conservatives, however, is that Democrats, pearl clutching columnists, and cable news pundits tried to spin it as a ‘threat to democracy’ when Trump did it, but will now say ‘all is well’ since it’s Biden sending the pink slips.”
In an email blast, Prior’s website, BidenDOJ.com, called the action a “Sneak Play on Impeachment Eve.” News of the expected move was first reported by CNN on Monday night.
There are 93 U.S. attorneys leading federal prosecutor offices around the country, though as of Tuesday, only 57 appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Senate remained, according to a Justice Department website. As in most administrations, many Trump appointees resigned before the transition, and their jobs are held by people installed in acting roles without Senate confirmation.
Biden did not immediately ask those people to step down, though he eventually will do so. They include the acting District of Columbia U.S. attorney, Michael Sherwin, whose office is handling all prosecutions stemming from the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
In a statement announcing the move, acting attorney general Monty Wilkinson said: “We are committed to ensuring a seamless transition. Until U.S. Attorney nominees are confirmed, the interim and acting leaders in the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices will make sure that the department continues to accomplish its critical law enforcement mission, vigorously defend the rule of law and pursue the fair and impartial administration of justice for all.”
Biden was inevitably going to select his own U.S. attorneys and move out those appointed by his predecessor. His request for each of their resignations Tuesday signals, though, that he intends to purge those sympathetic to Trump sooner rather than later, as many on the left had wanted him to do.
So far, Biden has nominated officials for four Justice Department spots, though none have yet won Senate confirmation. The Senate Judiciary Committee announced Tuesday that it has scheduled a two-day confirmation hearing for Merrick Garland, Biden’s attorney general nominee, on Feb. 22 and Feb. 23. Biden has not yet nominated any of his own U.S. attorney candidates.
Notably, the administration exempted from the move Delaware U.S. Attorney David Weiss, whose office is investigating Hunter Biden, the president’s son, for possible tax crimes. A Justice Department official said that Wilkinson on Monday asked Weiss to stay on in his current role.
The official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters, said Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham would also be able to continue his review of the FBI’s investigation of whether Trump’s 2016 campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election. That is because former attorney general William P. Barr appointed Durham as a special counsel, and he will remain in that role even after stepping down as U.S. attorney, the official said.
Bobby Christine, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia whom Trump controversially installed last month to also lead the office in Atlanta, announced Tuesday that he was leaving the government entirely. Christine was moved in as Trump waged a pressure campaign against officials in Georgia to support his unfounded claims of election fraud there, though he recently resigned from his role in Atlanta.
When Sessions asked the 46 remaining Obama administration U.S. attorneys across the country to submit their resignations in March 2017, some Democrats publicly questioned the move. Then-Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., for example, said, “The president is interrupting ongoing cases and investigations and hindering the administration of justice.’'
The Trump administration insisted at the time that it was acting normally and that a similar step was taken at the start of Bill Clinton’s administration.
Almost all the U.S. attorneys under Sessions left immediately. Other administrations, including those of Obama and George W. Bush, eased out U.S. attorneys gradually while seeking replacements.
Though Biden lacks a Senate-confirmed attorney general, his Justice Department has been moving rapidly to undo Trump-era directives or change the government’s position in cases. Last week, for example, Wilkinson rescinded a controversial memo that Barr had issued to give prosecutors more latitude to take public steps in voter fraud investigations before election results are certified. The department Monday dropped a lawsuit asserting that a former senior aide to Melania Trump violated a White House nondisclosure agreement by publishing a tell-all memoir about the former first lady.