The Deciding Decade: Preet Bharara on the rule of law and the future of the DOJ
Pete Buttigieg: Hi, I’m Pete Buttigieg. Welcome to the Deciding Decade.
One reason why I wanted to launch this podcast is because I believe we are at the outset of the decade that’s going to shape the rest of our lives in America. Now, that decade has begun with a challenging year, to put it mildly. And yet I also feel, from the position of 2020, that the 2020s could wind up being the threshold of a new and, I hope, much better, fairer, and more decent period in American history.
For that to happen, there are going to have to be a lot of decisions. Not just policy decisions but in our ordinary lives across our culture about what kind of country we’re going to be. And those decisions will happen in every field. One of the most important fields is the law.
Like so many Americans, I’ve been thinking a lot about justice and accountability. And I’m thinking about what the future of justice could look like in this country. In this moment and in the post-Trump era. How do we make sure the Department of Justice — and our whole judicial system — helps everyday people and not Wall Street and, for example, a corrupt President?
In my mind, Preet Bharara is the perfect person to help us face these questions because of the work he’s done in the Southern District of New York.
Pete Buttigieg: He formed the Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit, and led the charge and high profile convictions against, among others, Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law, international arms traffickers, heads of major financial organizations, members of hacking groups, and more.
You’ve likely seen his name in the news because of all of his game changing work, or because of his highly acclaimed book, Doing Justice, or his very popular podcast, Stay Tuned with Preet, or perhaps because he was fired by President Trump and not in the celebrity apprentice way, three months into the presidency, another topic I’m looking forward to delving into.
Welcome Preet. Thanks for making time, and great to have you.
Preet Bharara: Thank you, Mayor Pete. May I still call you Mayor Pete?
Pete Buttigieg: I’ll still answer to it. It sounds good.
Preet Bharara: Okay. It’s an honor to be here. Thanks for having me.
Pete Buttigieg: So many things I’m eager to talk with you about. But first, I want to rewind into your story, a little bit, because the immigrant experience is front and centered in how we’re thinking about what it means to be American, and the relationship that people have to this country.
You were born in India and two years later, I believe, you and your parents immigrated to the US, settled in New Jersey. I’m just curious. What motivated them to come to the US? What was their experience like? What was your experience like growing up here in the US?
Preet Bharara: That’s an issue that obviously is an important one for policy reasons, political reasons, legal reasons. And I’ve dealt with those issues, both as US attorney and when I was working in the Senate for Chuck Schumer. But obviously, it’s a very personal issue.
My dad left the place of his birth and took me from the place of my birth for the same reason that millions and millions of people have done so over generations. That’s because of the promise of a better life, a promise of opportunity, which he thought he could get only in the United States. That is why, it is so disconcerting and distressing to see certain policies being enacted, to see certain rhetoric being used, where people like my mom and my dad wonder a little bit if the country is as open and welcoming as it was back in the early 1970s when they came to America.
I wrote a piece, a couple of weeks ago about this little voice that I imagined is in every immigrant’s head that says, “After having done the very, very difficult thing, people will not appreciate it.” You don’t just pack your bags and come to America and it’s easy. It’s really hard.
My dad is one of 13, my mom was one of seven, and their parents were still alive. And to leave every friend, leave every tradition, leave your food, your culture, and your language behind, “Let’s go to a place that has a lot of promise,” it’s still not an easy thing to do. I imagine this voice in every immigrant’s head asks the question, “Was it the right thing to do? Was it a good decision?” And you hope and believe if you become successful, my parents’ children, my brother and I, both became successful here and you think, ““Yes, it was worth it. It was right.”
But there are moments when you see this rhetoric, you see certain things happening, you see the travel bans being enacted, and you wonder, “Am I really being accepted in America fully or only superficially? Am I just grandfathered in or other people like me are still permitted to come and experience opportunity and achieve great things in this country?” You wonder about that sometimes.
I’ve had a blessed life, my father and mother both have, and they’re both still with us, and my brother too. It’s an astonishing thing when not long ago, Kamala Harris, who was picked to be the VP. She’s black, also Indian. It’s that moment where I imagined people… like my mom was the most excited person I talked to that day. Usually, she’s calling up and asking about my kids, and about how other things are going. All she wanted to talk about was Kamala Harris, because she was so excited.
And I thought to myself, it’s a little bit of a clarion loud answer to the question, “Was it worth it?” Well, yeah, if someone whose parents are like my mom and dad, if she could be the vice president of the United States of America, well, then, yeah, this was the right thing to do. This was the right place to come.
So that’s a long-winded way of saying, yeah, I think about it a lot. You know there were not a lot of Indian people in Central Jersey at the time. There were no real Indian restaurants. We had a normal life other than people had a lot of questions. When I was a child in elementary school and people would say, “Where are you from?” And I would explain that I was born in India. I was Indian. People would ask me if I lived in a teepee.
I think that the kids my children go to school with now don’t make that mistake. But we had a normal American upbringing. I’d played a little league baseball for one year, and then it was terrible. My brother played it for a long time. We grew up with my mom cooking Indian food at home and listening to Indian music at home. My mom’s a great cook. She learned how to make Italian food and American food with Indian inflections.
Pete Buttigieg: Doing fusion before it was cool.
Preet Bharara: Exactly. She would make burgers, but they would have a little bit of spice in them. It took some more years for the general American palette to become familiar with Indian food. Now, Indian food is everywhere. Look how far we’ve come.
Pete Buttigieg: I was going to say, one interesting thing to our lifetimes in America has been seeing the country grow more and more cosmopolitan. I know my family experience is a little bit different but my father immigrated from this tiny Island country of Malta, whose culture is roughly like that of Italy or Sicily in a lot of ways. And something as simple as, he’d make espresso after dinner. That was a weird immigrant thing when I was a kid, that made us weird and different. By the time I’m finishing college, it’s cool.
So you had this upbringing and then it leads you to some of the most exclusive prestigious, and excellent educational experiences that an American can have, Harvard, Columbia. So I want to get to how your legal career begins. Because if I understand it right, you started your career in doing a lot of white collar defense work. And I’m fast forwarding to now, when you were known as, the nation’s most aggressive outspoken prosecutor, one of them of public corruption in Wall Street crime. So can you talk about that journey, and what it’s like having been on both sides of that and emerging as a prosecutor?
Preet Bharara: Yeah, so I realized at some point that I wanted to be a lawyer. That was pretty early on. I like to say that I had the impulse very strongly, fairly early on when I read, Inherit The Wind, it moved me in many ways, and the way it described courtroom scenes.
More specifically, I knew that I wanted to be a prosecutor. Even more specifically than that, to be an assistant US attorney in the Southern District of New York was when I was in law school and I took a class on trial practice. I wasn’t the most diligent attender of classes. I was in law school, which I sometimes I’m loathed to say. But the one class I prepared really hard, week in and week out, was trial practice. You do a sample. One week we could do an opening statement, another week we could do a cross examination, another week we could do a directive, redirect, et cetera. Boy, that was heaven for me, because the craft of it was really fascinating.
Then, as I learned more about what US attorney’s office was like or a prosecutor’s officer was like, it occurred to me that it was the ideal place for someone like me to work, because you don’t represent one individual’s interest because it helps a particular person, and that’s noble. It could be great work and it’s very important and it can be protective of people’s civil rights.
But I like the idea that being in a place where you don’t have to make arguments you don’t believe in, but you only do that what you think is right. And if you don’t think it’s right, then you don’t bring the case. You know, when I was hiring prosecutors, you’ll want to have people who have the experience of the other side. Some people call it a revolving door. That’s not the right way of looking at it. You want to have people who’ve had the experience, if possible, of representing an individual and understanding how much power the government has, and understanding that the things that you do as a prosecutor, forget about indicting someone or having them arrested, but just opening an investigation or issuing a subpoena, how that is the equivalent of rolling a hand grenade across this threshold of a business or a home. You want people to understand how much power they have.
And so I thought that served me well, having been on the other side, in certain cases, before I came to the US attorney’s office.
Pete Buttigieg: So then you become one of the most prominent US Attorneys, just by virtue of the Southern District, in addition to the work that you did and the approach that you took. And one of the things that’s been on my mind, looking at the Department of Justice, and I should say, I’m the rare presidential candidate who’s not a lawyer, never went to law school, so it’s very much on the outside, looking when I’m trying to understand some of these things.
Preet Bharara: You’re going to live a long time, my friend.
Pete Buttigieg: I guess it’s never too late. But for the most part, as a mayor, most of my interactions with US Attorney’s Office were when we were teaming up on violence prevention efforts and trying to develop strategies on that front. But the other way I came to know federal prosecutors, actually, was by chance, through my military reserve unit. So I joined an intelligence unit in Chicago, or outside of Chicago. A lot of the officers there were either FBI agents or prosecutors.
One of the things I remember, from just socially and professionally, getting to know people who worked in that office is that, they were always in my experience, almost ridiculously careful not to be political, even offline. Even when I knew exactly how they felt about something, they would talk around it, just be careful never to even give a whiff of partisanship.
I’m thinking now to this moment we’re in, where we have everything from the intervention in the sentencing and prosecution of Alex Jones to the politically motivated removal of US attorneys. Even just the way during the Republican National Convention that we saw federal property and federal processes pardoning and immigration swearing in. These things that are supposed to have absolutely nothing to do with politics being just mixed in. It’s something that symbolized ultimately by the president’s use of the White House, as a site to campaign from.
I’m thinking back to the people I knew, in the US attorney’s office, just the effect that must have on their morale, but also, maybe on their worldview. I wonder, I’m sure you’re in touch with a lot of people in this world. I know you’ve thought about this deeply. What do you think it’ll take for the nonpolitical culture that’s supposed to be so important to the Department of Justice to recover from this experience? What are the consequences of that political interference? Where do we go from here?
Preet Bharara: Going back to what your memory is, that’s what it’s supposed to be like. That if you were in federal service, particularly the Justice Department, which is different from every other agency in the government. It’s supposed to be the least political agency in the government.
You’re not supposed to know what their political affiliation is or base any decision making in hiring on whether they’re Conservative or Liberal, whether they’re Democrats or not. In fact, my time in the Senate, we did an investigation of politicization of the Justice Department, and the Inspector General wrote a multi hundred-page report talking about how that rule was violated for a period of time under George. W. Bush’s Justice Department.
As the saying goes, “Justice must not only be done. It must be seen to be done.” What that means in part is, it has to be seen to be done equally, whether you’re old or young, whether you’re white or black, whether you’re Republican or a Democrat. Those things don’t matter. What matters is the facts the law and you treat everyone equally.
I used to joke when I was in office. The way you should think about this, there are really three political parties, the Democrats, Republicans, and federal prosecutors. There’s no Democratic or Republican way of prosecuting a robbery case, a homicide case, or a corruption case.
Now politics enters into the rhetoric, in other places, about that because by definition, if you’re charging public corruption against an elected official, that elected official will be from almost, always, one party or another. Our record in office was, we prosecuted a lot more Democrats than Republicans. But one of the reasons you have to be assiduously and studiously apolitical is so that when you do bring a case against an elected official, or someone who’s associated with an elected official, that the public has confidence that you did it for the right reasons.
All of that is being undermined and being questioned for a lot of different reasons, among them, I think the most culpable person as the President of the United States, who basically has said, he wants people who are close to him to be spared. And on the other hand, if people are your adversary, he kinda wants them locked up. He wants people to go after them.
You can have the best laws in the world, you can have the best constitution in the world. But if the people suck, if the people are inept, or the people are corrupt, you can turn the law to your purpose, and exercise your discretion in a way that could cause huge miscarriages of justice. We have to concentrate, not just on, for the laws are and having better rules, but on making sure that you have good people who exercising their discretion, in a good, honest, and fair-minded way. That’s how you get a lot of terrible things to happen. It’s not just the laws, it’s the people too.
Pete Buttigieg: I’m a big fan of Hilary Mantel. I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of her fiction. She’s written these novels about Thomas Cromwell, who’s Henry the VIII’s lawyer in the 1540s. I don’t know how being a lawyer in the England, in the 1530s and 1540s compares to today. But in the middle of this novel, there’s this line she has, that always sticks with me. She said, “When you’re writing laws, you’re testing words to find their utmost power, like spells they have to make things happen, in the real world. And like spells, they only work if people believe in them.”
What I want to put to you as somebody who’s lived in the law and also had a front row seat to so many of the corruptions of long legal processes that are going on is, what’s your level of confidence that Americans will believe in the integrity of our system of law enough for it to work 10, 20 years from now? What will it take to make sure that the damage done, in this moment, doesn’t stick with us for the rest of our lifetimes?
Preet Bharara: So that’s the central question, and I think it takes culture, which comes from the top. If you’re talking about overall trust and confidence in the institutions, that has been sort of dwindling over time. So now imagine you have a justice system and any justice system is going to have controversy, especially when people who are high-up, who have political affiliations, engage in misconduct that has to be investigated. In some ways, it’s impossible for things not to get somewhat polarized. People care a lot about their candidate for president.
Usually, however, there’s always a little bit of claiming of a witch-hunt. Bill Clinton in his time attacked the prosecutors. Richard Nixon was careful not to do that so much publicly, because he understood there might be some backlash. But he did it some, and he certainly did it behind closed doors. The difference now is that Donald Trump and his allies have no line that they won’t cross in attacking good people.
Part of the harm has been done, because you have someone with the biggest bully-pulpit in the world, telling people, compelling people to have to lose their trust and faith in law enforcement. Do people make mistakes, yes. Did some people do things that they’re not supposed to do, yes.
But the wholesale undermining of any decision by anyone in the Justice Department, I think you laid that at the feet, mostly of the president. Even though it’s his Justice Department.
The first thing that has to happen is, when new leaders come in, they have to knock it off. They have to stop doing it. They have to announce, “On politically sensitive things. I’m going to let the career people make their recommendation.” It’s also for the benefit of the leaders too so they don’t look political, and they don’t look like they’re not living up to their oath that they owe the public. So you need that.
There are also some other rule kind of reforms that you can engage, and you should have starker policies that are written out. Again, that’s not enough, because people can define those policies as we see at the hatch act. There were rules against what the president did at his convention, the Republican Convention. But if you’re the president, and you don’t have a good enforcement mechanism, there’s nothing anybody can do about it.
So you need people to enforce these rules about separation of politics from law enforcement. But mostly, you need a period of time during which good people, at the tops of these places, are not doing the kind of nonsense you’ve seen Trump do.
Pete Buttigieg: You mentioned, presidential accountability. And earlier, you mentioned the example of Nixon, which got me thinking about something I’ve noticed, which is, after Nixon resigned from office, President Ford decided to pardon him. And while there was some anger at the time and it may have cost President Ford his career and his chances of re-election, that in the judgment of history from a medium term perspective, it was viewed as a fairly noble act. He had maybe even knowingly, hurt his own political standing by doing something that he felt was important in pardoning Nixon.
But I’ve noticed, especially as I speak to anyone who’s any younger than me, a level of puzzlement about whether that was the right decision. First of all, I’m just curious what you think of that episode in US history. Did Ford do the right thing? Does the Trump Presidency create a different perspective on whether Ford did the right thing?
Then the obvious follow-up, three years from now, five years from now, given the number of guilty pleas and convictions associated with the people around President Trump, it’s not wild to suppose that he himself may face criminal liability responsibility in the future. Because you have expertise in public corruption, a president calls you in a few years and says, “A pardon case has hit my desk concerning former President Trump. What is the right thing to do?” How do you approach that?
So I’ll ask you to look backwards historically, and then look forward speculatively. Do the same principles apply from one case to the other?
Preet Bharara: Yeah, I think they’re different in some ways, but they also have some similarity. With respect to Ford and Nixon, my sense is consistent with what I think historians think, is that it was a good and selfless act on the part of Gerald Ford to move the country forward.
I think that some other things weighed on his decision. Among those things are one, Nixon resigned. He accepted in some ways, some responsibility and had some contrition, he actually left office. And a lot of the misdeeds that are attributable to Nixon were known. There are probably a whole bunch of others. But you kind of understood what the facts were. He kind of pled guilty in a professional sense, not in a courtroom, he didn’t suffer a prison sentence. But there was some closure because the man left office and got in the helicopter.
If you have a current situation where there was criminality on the part of the president of the United States, let’s say Donald Trump, and there’s lots of other unknown stuff that he has done or has been doing that remains to be uncovered and you have investigation going on by the New York Attorney General and the Manhattan District Attorney. One could imagine that there are lots of other things going on with the organization and interference and obstruction kinds of issues and some things with respect to what Bob Mueller was investigating have still, maybe not come to light. You both have an absence of full understanding of the conduct of the president and he also hasn’t left office.
So if he were defeated at the polls and he would be able to be subject as a legal matter to prosecution, it’s sort of different. What is similar is boy, the next administration, if there’s a new administration, has to think very carefully both for moral reasons and also practical reasons about how to proceed.
Morally, they might think, “Well, someone has done bad things they should be accountable. No one’s above the law,” but they also have a country to govern and the country is more polarized than it’s ever been. Even if Donald Trump goes away after he’s defeated and accepts the election results, there are tens of millions of people who will be supportive of him and will be absolutely antagonistic to anything that happens to him, further investigations, prosecutions being held accountable. And they will, because they have been conditioned in part by him, they will view those things as political payback.
Even if that’s not true, and even if the people that you are putting in charge of that kind of thing in your justice department or the commissioner or whatever, are fair minded. Think of the example of Robert Mueller, it’s going to be hard to get the business of your administration done. It’s going to be hard to deal with things like income inequality and criminal justice reform.
So I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to know what the right balance is to strike. What I do know is going to be very, very difficult to figure it out. Look, Barack Obama’s Justice Department had to deal with a much smaller, less complicated version of this. Nobody’s fully satisfied when Eric Holder, as the Attorney General, had the department take a look at some of the practices of the CIA using enhanced interrogation techniques and black sites and other things. There were a lot of people who wanted folks to go to jail and there were other people who thought we should move on. That’s always going to be a difficult issue.
So I think there’s a parallel a history rhymes, there’s a parallel between the Nixon era and this time. I think there are notable differences. I don’t envy the people who are going to have to decide the best way to make sure that justice is done and accountability has had, but also not split the country in two, and be able to do all the other important things that we need to do as a country.
Pete Buttigieg: It’s, in some ways, frightening to think about that reality that you mentioned a lot of his supporters being in that that may just be different in its nature than the reality that that other Americans were in.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. Look, I mean, you said something on a campaign trail that I respected very much. You reminded me of it with your question and that is, I think you and the other candidates got asked the question, “Will you direct to the justice department to investigate and prosecute Donald Trump for X, Y, or Z or for anything?”
I was very pleased to hear your answer, which would have been my answer, which was some version of, “Look, people should be held accountable for what they’ve done and no ones above the law that includes the president. But that is a decision for the justice department. That’s a decision that should be made independently based on the facts and the law. If you have an elected official, a politician like me or someone else as the president, who is directing a prosecution or investigation of a political rival, that’s what got us in this mess in the first place.”
So we should be careful of saying in the future that we’re going to direct people to bring a prosecution because that’s what Trump does. It doesn’t make it better or right if you’re on the other side.
Pete Buttigieg: Right. The reason I responded that way, because I just feel like nothing good can come of a political official directing prosecutions of political figures. What we’re seeing right now is pretty horrific in terms of a president directing DOJ to be lenient for political reasons. You could argue there’s something even more fearsome about the prospect of a president directing a DOJ to be aggressive for political reasons.
Preet Bharara: That’s what Trump is doing. He’s literally saying those things and we got to get away from that. We can’t repeat, in the other direction, some of that rhetoric and conduct on the part of this president.
Pete Buttigieg: So another thing, again, not a lawyer, but I do talk to lawyers on TV and podcasts. And one of the central things I think that people study in way in the law, is the nature of evidence and There’s a whole set of rules around what you can and can’t use for evidence, but also a lot depends on just what we believe.
This is partly on my mind just because one of my colleagues at Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study was presenting at a seminar, introduced me to a website I’ve never heard of before called ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com. If you get a minute, this is one thing I’ll leave you with for the day-
Preet Bharara: Oh my goodness, it sounds intriguing.
Pete Buttigieg: Every time you load it, a photo comes up of a person. Sometimes you think like, “Oh, that looks like somebody I know,” none of these people exist. It’s all generated by algorithm.
Preet Bharara: It’s deepfake.
Pete Buttigieg: Exactly. So this colleague of mine is an expert on deepfake and that was the context that he was introducing us to some of the technology out there and it is alarming. It feels like our grasp on what is real is maybe being slipping away. Of course, also being energetically and actively undermined, whether it’s by domestic actors for political reasons, or by hostile foreign powers for strategic reasons.
So when all of that swirling around, what has to happen for the law and for the country to keep up and know that we have some level of faith in our ability to sort out what is fact from what is fiction?
Preet Bharara: That’s a great question and it goes to a troubling issue that a lot of people say is the next disaster for a lot of reasons, for institutions and for the law and for people’s reputations, and that’s this issue of deepfake and what you can believe and not believe .We don’t have enough time to focus on it because in the interim, we have a pandemic and we have an election and we have the economy in a recession and so many other things going on. But it is going to be one of the central things people focus on in the near future.
As a legal matter, it affects both the possibility of being able to implicate people in bad conduct that they didn’t commit, because you can have doctored… you were talking about a photograph, but there is now technology that as soon going to be able to be gotten by people who don’t have a lot of means, you don’t have to be a big Hollywood studio to show you, Pete Buttigieg, committing a crime.
But it’s also going to be a problem in the other direction where people don’t think about as much, which is, suppose you did rob a bank. In an age in which there are deepfakes where people believe that some of this stuff has made up, how are you going to get people to believe, even with authentication from experts, that it does actually depict a person shooting someone or robbing a bank. They’ll say, “Look, that’s a deepfake.”
So it’s kind of a metaphor for what’s happening in the country generally. The issue with Donald Trump and the… it’s not an attack on truth. In other words, not an attack on a particular fact that he doesn’t want you to believe that fact, he wants you to believe a different fact. That’s easy and people can deal with that. That’s not as harmful to society.
What’s harmful is if someone like Trump or someone else gets you to doubt the nature of truth itself and the concept of this goes right to that question, “What is the nature of truth?”
Courtrooms and criminal cases and civil cases too, they all rely on a fundamental principle and that fundamental principle is that there is a truth and that the truth is knowable and provable. And if you can’t prove a particular truth, then the case goes away. And there is some hope that expertise will be developing so the people, if they have the proper metadata, that you can stay one step ahead.
But if people are given to believe that everything is made up and it could just as easily be true is not true. I don’t know how much experts are going to matter in a court of law.
Pete Buttigieg: You mentioned the challenge to expertise or, I think in many ways, a loss of faith and expertise that has life or death implications, especially with regard to responding into COVID-19.
Why do you think that happened? Did experts blow it in some ways? Is this the result of nefarious efforts to undermine the credibility of experts or are experts to blame? Or is there something else going on?
Preet Bharara: I think it’s all those things that you mentioned. I think you have repeatedly day after day, somebody who has a particular point of view. I hate to keep going back to the president, but he’s sort of an avatar of all these things. Now, in the last few months on the pandemic, you have lots and lots of doctors who were saying the science is unclear about something, or as clear in a particular direction, but Donald Trump and others have their own view of it and they feel they can just substitute it.
And people want to believe things that they want to believe. Whether it’s, “I don’t have to wear a mask because it’s not effective,” either the science shows that it is. I think that’s part of the problem. Part of the problem is, experts are fallible and it happens to be true. In connection with the pandemic that now everyone is saying with great adamance, “Wear a mask, wear a mask, wear a mask, wear a mask,” but there was a time not long ago, when those same experts said, “Don’t wear a mask. Don’t wear mask.”
People of ordinary common sense, and I like to think I am, you kinda wonder. So some of it, the experts hurt themselves. And some of it is, they’re just fallible. Expertise doesn’t mean perfection. But if you weaponize the imperfection of experts, then you’re going to get more and more distrust and lack of faith in that expertise. You have, in Trump, the leading proponent of weaponizing… So an expert can be right 99 times out of 100, and that expert is wrong one time out of a hundred, you got a guy with the biggest megaphone in the world who’s going to talk about that one error over and over and over and over again and people listen. Repetition matters.
And that expert… you look at Dr. Fauci, you don’t see him as much as you did before. Nobody can compete with that megaphone. Then another point I’ll make that I think is more interesting. I don’t fully understand the argument, but I’m reading an upcoming book by Michael Sandel and having them on the podcast very soon. His book is called, The Tyranny of Merit. He makes a different argument.
He says p eople have to be careful that there is on the left a little bit on Progressive’s elites. You want various names, you can call them, who have so fetishized expertise and so much made it the case that, “Well, everyone who’s in office and everyone is making a decision about something, has to be super steeped and has to have a Nobel prize under their belt. That it a little bit is off putting to people who don’t understand how nuclear physics works, who don’t understand climate models. I’m one of those people, I don’t understand those things.
You’re saying to a lot of people in the country, you’re not smart enough to engage in this debate, leave it to the experts. That’s a disenfranchisement of good faith, well-meaning people who care about their country and they’re being told, “You’re too dumb to understand these things, leave it to the experts.” That’s an unintended consequence of something that is meant to be done in good faith, which is, allow science to go. But that’s not how it’s always received in the eardrums of people who are made to be feel like their opinions don’t matter. I don’t know. Do you find any truth in that?
Pete Buttigieg: Absolutely. I think that’s especially been operative in my part of the country where there’s a sense that sometimes this part of the country gets lectured to whether we’re talking about industrial workers in more carbon intensive industries or people who are maybe a little skeptical about trade deals. And I remember feeling sometimes being on the other side of this, on learning just how deep the suspicion was on little parochial things when I was mayor.
Like, we would reroute a road and people would say, “This is never going to work.” I’d be like, “What do you mean we did all these traffic engineering studies. These people know what they’re doing. They’re traffic engineers for God’s sake. I’m not.”
Preet Bharara: We have graphs.
Pete Buttigieg: … yeah, listen to them. The truth was sometimes I was right. Sometimes we were wrong. Sometimes when we went back and took another look at it, people who may not have been experts in traffic engineering, but they were experts in their own neighborhood, we were able to point to something that was missed.
If there’s a sense of condescension toward people, that can be incredibly dangerous. Then you couple that with the fact that most doctors, scientists, when they do get something wrong, they talk about it because it’s part of their process and politicians genereally don’t.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, and then that’s taken advantage of by bad faith people are getting in certain ways-
Pete Buttigieg: Right, exactly, it’s used against us. By the way, there’s also something in the intelligence community, where good intelligence assessments always say, “We assess with a high level of confidence,” they never say, “This is absolutely certain.” We saw in the case of, for example, the Russia bounties, how that was twisted as a way to say, “Look, like they didn’t even know for sure,” who cares what they say.
Preet Bharara: Right. If you have someone who’s going to in a bad faith way, take advantage of people who were acting in good faith, you have a problem. You can literally have an expert who says 55,000 times gets an observation correct. But it’s an observation that people don’t like on one side of an issue or another one is climate change or anything else. One time they make a mistake all you’re going to hear about is that one time.
In the same way, there’s a flip side to that too, that the president engages in. He can make do 55,000 things wrong with respect to the pandemic. One thing he can say I did was right. He did something with respect to closing off travel from China.
He just repeats that over and over and over and over again, as if that’s the same as the 55,000 mistakes he made.
Pete Buttigieg: I think about it as, there’s like a 100 things he should have done, and he did this one thing and one out of a hundred, it’s generally an F, but to them, they talk about it as if that shows he was right on COVID all along.
Preet Bharara: Part of the reason I mentioned the president so much is because he’s to blame for a lot of this, but also he’s disproportionate power. He has the largest microphone on earth and he uses it a lot. He is capable of repetition without seeming to grow tired of it. The combination of shamelessness, the largest platform on earth, the repetition.
Once someone like that goes, if the next person is not like that, I think all of it, not all of it, because you still have other leaders who can spout nonsense and propaganda, but a lot of it fades because you don’t have someone who’s so present and dominant in everyone’s life, whether you’re Democrat or Republican or Independent telling you what to think and weaponizing these discrepancies.
Pete Buttigieg: Well, a lot depends on that proving right. So I hope that’s what’ll happen. On this podcast, we were thinking a lot about the decade ahead and how that decade is going to shape really the rest of the era that we’re living in.
So I’m wondering, if you’re thinking about the perspective of somebody who’s just graduating from law school right now and was motivated to study law because they believe in the rule of law, but for the entirety of their law school career. They’ve seen this president and this administration doing these things. What would you say to them? You mentioned, at the beginning of our conversation and some immigrants might have in the back of their head that question, “Did I make the right choice when I came to the United States?”
I’m sure there’s a lot of budding lawyers who are asking themselves the question, “Did I make the right choice by pursuing law?” What would you say to them to give them hope about the path they’ve chosen and the future of the rule of law?
Preet Bharara: I would say, “Welcome to the profession.” I would say, “Read my book.” But if you don’t read the book, pay attention to the notion that I already alluded to earlier in our conversation, that is, who the lawyers are on an issue matters. If all lawyers are equal and everyone’s judgment is the same, then it shouldn’t matter if you decide to become a lawyer or someone else decides to become a lawyer.
We have cases, some of which I talk about in the book, where a miscarriage of justice happens. Someone who should not have been prosecuted for a crime was prosecuted for a crime. Then later it turns out that there’s proof that they were not guilty. Most of the time in those cases, and one example I give is 17 years a number of people spent time in prison for a murder they had not committed, the laws hadn’t changed. It’s that the excellence and rigor of the people who are responsible for the case was different.
So the first bit of hope I would give to these hypothetical students you’re talking about is, have confidence in yourself that if you are a person of integrity in good faith and honesty and good judgment, that you can make a difference, even if you’re not changing a single law.
But having a law degree is a powerful tool. The ability to be a member of a bar and to represent and help underdogs and underprivileged folks, or to write a wrong or to cure an injustice, there are a lot of opportunities that lawyers have to do that ordinary citizens don’t.
You now, the folks who are going through this process, you should be very honored that you will have a power that many other people don’t have. To think proudly of the model that the law provides for how maybe in the rest of society, we can learn to understand each other better persuade people, as opposed to bash them over the head.
Pete Buttigieg: That’s a really powerful vindication of the idea of the law, but also the idea that it matters. Who’s doing these things almost makes me wish I went to law school. That’s not a small thing.
Preet Bharara: It’s never too late.
Pete Buttigieg: [laughs]
Pete Buttigieg: That was a fascinating conversation, I’m already tempted to ask for a follow up because I feel like we have so much more to talk about.
One thing I couldn’t quite get off my mind as we were talking about was how one consequences of this Trump presidency is that people like Preet, who was heading up a crucial district within the Department of Justice with a clear commitment to tackling corruption, the exact sort of public servant a president depends on, people like him were pushed out of government — often as a reaction or a response to their decision to do the job with integrity.
On the other hand, that has not stopped him from being a very influential voice in the law and in America and I expect we’ll continue to see his impact in the decade ahead. People like Preet Bharara are out there, standing for justice, fighting for change. And that’s good news for the era to come.