If you read the internet on Friday, you might believe that Donald Trump had issued a shocking volley against the Department of Justice. “Trump Abruptly Orders 46 Obama-Era Prosecutors to Resign,” declared the New York Times. But as the actual story noted, the headline was more dramatic than the reality: While it’s true that the Trump administration asked every remaining U.S. attorney in the country who was appointed by Barack Obama to hand in their resignations on Friday, there was nothing particularly unusual or surprising about the move. Strangely enough, this sort of mass-firing of U.S. attorneys—the federal prosecutors who oversee the Justice Department’s 93 field offices—is a Washington tradition, and every new president in recent memory who has taken over for the opposing party has done some version of the same thing.
As the Los Angeles Times noted in 2007, Ronald Reagan named 89 new U.S. attorneys during his first two years as president. Bill Clinton did as well. George W. Bush named 88. Obama, for his part, reportedly took a somewhat gentler approach and allowed resignations to trickle in gradually instead of bringing the ax down all at once. (“The way the Obama administration handled it was appropriate and respectful and classy,” one former U.S. attorney told the AP, by way of comparison to Trump’s move.) But ultimately the same principle holds for every administration: With new leadership in the Department of Justice come new ideas about how best to enforce federal law, and that means the attorney general brings in prosecutors who see things his or her way.
Naturally, the fact that these kinds of dramatic changes are normal doesn’t mean they don’t spark partisan rancor: When Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno announced in March of 1993 that 77 George H.W. Bush–era U.S. attorneys had been asked to resign, the news was greeted with calls for congressional hearings by some in the GOP. Then-Sen. Bob Dole even went so far as to call it a “March Massacre.” Don’t be surprised if you see similar fireworks erupt in response to Trump—especially if any of the prosecutors who are getting the boot have cases pending that in some way affect Trump’s presidency or the Trump Organization.
It remains to be seen whether all 46 U.S. attorneys who were affected by Friday’s announcement will actually end up leaving—it’s possible that Attorney General Jeff Sessions will reject some of the resignations, or ask some attorneys to stay on until their replacements have been found. One office to watch is that of Preet Bharara in the Southern District of New York, who was widely believed to enjoy Trump’s support and who told reporters after the election that he expected to keep his job.
What might have provoked Friday’s house-cleaning? The New York Times plays it coy in the current version of its story, noting that the move “came less than 24 hours after Sean Hannity, the Fox News commentator who often speaks with Mr. Trump, called for a ‘purge’ of Obama appointees at the Justice Department on his show.” It would not be the first time the president was so influenced by the network, and at this point, there would be nothing surprising about that either.