WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 9: Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a swearing in ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Thursday, Feb. 08, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 9: Attorney General Jeff Sessions listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a swearing in ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Thursday, Feb. 08, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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Story highlights

Administrations have the right to nominate or dismiss US attorneys as they see fit

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also dismissed large numbers of US attorneys

(CNN) —  

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked for the resignations of 46 US attorneys, igniting anger from officials who say they were given no warning about their dismissals.

The Justice Department announced the firings Friday afternoon, and many prosecutors had not been formally notified or even told before they were fired, according to a law enforcement source. Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente was in the beginning stages of calling each US attorney individually to tell them they had to resign when the DOJ issued a statement.

A law enforcement source charged that “this could not have been handled any worse” because there was little warning. Many prosecutors found out through media reports that they had to resign today.

A Justice Department spokeswoman explained that forced resignations are a matter of course when turning the agency over to a new administration.

“As was the case in prior transitions, many of the United States attorneys nominated by the previous administration already have left the Department of Justice. The attorney general has now asked the remaining 46 presidentially appointed US attorneys to tender their resignations in order to ensure a uniform transition,” Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores said.

It is common for administrations to ask holdovers to step down, but what is less common is the abruptness of Friday’s announcement. Two sources familiar with the Justice Department tell CNN they were unsure for some time whether such an action would happen and had been looking for some type of announcement – but received radio silence.

“There was not any particular clarity from the Justice Department as to what the future held for the US attorneys” until now, one source said.

But the Justice Department argues that the agency will continue to function as normal.

“Until the new US attorneys are confirmed, the dedicated career prosecutors in our US attorney’s offices will continue the great work of the department in investigating, prosecuting, and deterring the most violent offenders,” Flores said.

A list of the US attorneys asked to resign was not immediately available. But one of them is the high-profile US attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, according to a Justice Department official. Bharara met with President Donald Trump at Trump Tower after the November election and told reporters that Trump had asked him to stay on, and that he agreed to do so.

Resignations from two prosecutors, acting deputy attorney general Dana Boente and his permanent replacement, Rod Rosenstein, were declined by Trump, according to a DOJ spokesman.

Ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee Dianne Feinstein said she was “surprised” and “concerned” by the news of the firings, saying the actions contradict what she was told by the Vice President and other administration officials.

“In January, I met with Vice President Pence and White House Counsel Donald McGahn and asked specifically whether all U.S. attorneys would be fired at once,” the California senator said in a statement. “Mr. McGahn told me that the transition would be done in an orderly fashion to preserve continuity. Clearly this is not the case.”

The law enforcement source said it is understood that it’s customary for a new administration to ask for resignations, but “you don’t tell them to clean out their desks the same day effective midnight tonight. There are people traveling on official business – are they supposed to turn into their cell phones today? Can they come into their office tomorrow to check email?”

Administrations have the right to replace and nominate US attorneys. President Bill Clinton, for instance, dismissed dozens of US attorneys in his first year of office.

In mid-March 2001, President George W. Bush’s attorney general said he was transitioning most of the 93 US attorneys before June of that year.

President Ronald Reagan replaced a majority of his administration’s US attorneys within his first two years in office.

The news came as Trump’s administration was raising alarms about interests within the administration working against the current White House.

“I think that there’s no question when you have eight years of one party in office, there are people who stay in government — and continue to espouse the agenda of the previous administration,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Friday. “So I don’t think it should come as any surprise there are people that burrowed into government during eight years of the last administration and may have believed in that agenda and may continue to seek it.”

Spicer’s remarks were in response to a question about the existence of the “deep state,” a phrase meant to suggest non-elected individuals controlling the work of the federal government.