On Saturday, President Trump fired U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, the top federal prosecutor who leads the powerful and fiercely independent Southern District of New York, and who has overseen numerous investigations into close associates of the president. The move came after Attorney General William Barr seemed to try to publicly force Berman to resign on Friday night — and Berman publicly defied Barr and vowed that the SDNY would continue its investigations under his leadership until a nominated replacement was confirmed by the Senate.
In a letter made public on Saturday afternoon, Barr accused Berman of “choosing public spectacle over public service” by denying Barr’s announcement on Friday, and said that Trump was thus removing Berman from the job at his request. Barr said that Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss will replace him, effective immediately, and likely serve until a “permanent successor is in place.”
Adding some more confusion to the “spectacle,” President Trump claimed afterward that he was “not involved” with firing Berman.
Saturday’s announcement was preceded by a bizarre and dramatic standoff, and the whole episode is both a new low point and a significant new crisis for the Justice Department under the already tumultuous leadership of Barr — who has repeatedly put the interests of President Trump above the rule of law and repeatedly lied about doing so, and who has helped orchestrate a purge of the Trump administration officials who have not demonstrated sufficient loyalty to the president.
Late Friday night, Barr released a statement announcing that U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman was “stepping down” as the top federal prosecutor for the powerful and fiercely independent Southern District of New York, that President Trump planned to nominate Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Jay Clayton — who has no prosecutorial experience — to replace him, and that Trump was appointing the current U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, to take over the SDNY while Clayton awaits Senate confirmation. (Barr then made no mention of Carpenito on Saturday.)
About an hour after Barr’s statement on Friday, Berman — who has overseen aggressive criminal investigations of several people close to the president including Trump lawyer and confidant Rudy Giuliani, Trump fixer Michael Cohen, and Giuliani associates (and Trump donors and Trump Ukraine fixers) Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — didn’t just make it clear he opposed being fired, but released a statement in which he effectively called Barr a liar, refused to step down until a replacement was confirmed by the Senate, asserted that Barr has no legal authority to fire him, and vowed that the SDNY would continue its investigations “unimpeded” in the meantime.
“I learned in a press release from the Attorney General tonight that I was ‘stepping down’ as United States Attorney,” Berman said in a statement released by the SDNY. “I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position, to which I was appointed by the Judges of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.”
“I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate. Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption. I cherish every day that I work with the men and women of this Office to pursue justice without fear or favor — and intend to ensure that this Office’s important cases continue unimpeded.”
Since Berman was not nominated by the president and then confirmed by the Senate as is traditionally the case with U.S. Attorneys, but was appointed by the federal court in his district, the law is likely on his side when it comes to whether or not Barr can remove him before his replacement is confirmed. President Trump, however, could and ultimately did fire Berman on Saturday.
The timing of Berman’s ouster — both the attempt on Friday and official act on Saturday — is also highly suspect, as Preet Bharara, Berman’s predecessor whom Trump fired in 2017, and others quickly pointed out on Friday:
According to one of the New York Times’ sources, Barr asked Berman to resign then tried to fire him after he refused, and Trump and his advisers have reportedly wanted Berman gone for some time — dissatisfaction which began when Berman and the SDNY went after Michael Cohen as part of the Stormy Daniels hush-money probe. According to an unnamed Justice Department official who spoke with the Washington Post, Barr sought the change because Clayton had expressed interest in the job, Barr liked that idea — despite the fact that the former corporate attorney would be the first non-prosecutor to lead the SDNY — and that Berman had declined an offer to take over the Justice Department’s Civil Division. And according to CNN:
Last fall, Justice Department officials discussed replacing Berman with Ed O’Callaghan, a senior official, but then prosecutors indicted [Giuliani associates Parnas and Fruman], a move that appeared to extend Berman’s tenure.
Trump and Barr have long taken issue with the office’s handling of various cases, but people close to the office believe its string of extremely high-profile investigations — including those of Cohen, Giuliani, and Jeffrey Epstein — may have deterred Justice officials from pushing out Berman because his exit would have been certain to cause an uproar and charges of political interference. For the last several months, however, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic, the office has had a relatively quiet period, and some believe Barr seized that opportunity to oust Berman.
In addition, former Trump national security adviser John Bolton alleges in his new book (which Trump and Barr are trying to suppress) that President Trump had told Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2018 that he could help make an SDNY investigation into the Turkish bank Halkbank go away. Berman had also overseen an investigation into irregularities in the funding of President Trump’s inauguration committee — and if he wants to, he’ll have an open audience with House Democrats to discuss his experiences with Barr next week: