In Attorney General William Barr’s most recent public assessment, Geoffrey Berman was doing an exemplary job as Manhattan’s chief federal prosecutor.
There was talk of naming him to another weighty position in the Trump administration, including chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission or chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Division in Washington.
“With tenacity and savvy, Geoff has done an excellent job leading one of our nation’s most significant U.S. Attorney’s Offices,” Barr said late Friday night, adding that the prosecutor had achieved “many successes on consequential civil and criminal matters.”
The only problem: Berman, whose office has prosecuted and investigated several of President Donald Trump’s allies, had no interest in leaving to make way for the president’s favored replacement – current SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, whose resume is absent any previous experience as a prosecutor.
Less than 48 hours after a battle for control of the Justice Department’s most prestigious office ended with Trump ordering Berman’s dismissal, the urgency of the administration’s action has not been fully explained.
By some accounts, Clayton had expressed interest in the Manhattan post to both Barr and Trump while preparing to leave the SEC. Others have suggested that the abrupt move, initially revealed on another late Friday night, mimicked the recent actions to remove a number of government watchdogs cast as disloyal or a threat to the administration.
Barr announced then that Berman was “stepping down” to make way for Trump’s intended nomination of Clayton, prompting the prosecutor to fire back that he had “no intention” of resigning. The standoff was ultimately broken Saturday when Trump formally dismissed Berman, who indicated that he would not challenge the action.
“The common theme in this multi-trade proposal,” said a person familiar with the matter, “is a desire to get Geoff Berman out of the Southern District of New York.”
Lawmakers on Sunday continued to raise questions about the sudden removal of the prosecutor who oversaw the prosecution of Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and who also is managing investigations of the president’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, along with two of Giuliani’s former business associates.
“You really have to question this Friday night attempted massacre – now completed one,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told NBC’s Meet the Press.
Schiff pointed to Berman’s initial refusal to resign in which the prosecutor referenced ongoing investigations within his office and his desire to advance them “without delay or interruption.”
The prosecutor did not elaborate on the nature of specific inquiries, but his ultimate ouster comes just days after former Trump national security adviser John Bolton revealed in a book that the president once sought to interfere in an investigation of a Turkish bank to pacify Turkey’s president, Recep Erdogan. The inquiry is being led by Berman’s now-former office.
“Berman clearly had a concern for why he was being pushed out,” Schiff said.
Separately, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the vice-chairman of the Intelligence Committee, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the Justice Department, under Barr’s leadership, has “repeatedly” intervened in politically-sensitive cases.
Earlier this year, the attorney general overruled prosecutors to recommend a lighter prison sentence for Trump adviser Roger Stone. More recently, he has become embroiled in an effort to abandon the prosecution of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
In both cases, the attorney general’s action drew a hail of criticism and sharp rebukes from a court-appointed arbiter in the Flynn case who called the Justice Department action a “gross abuse” of power.
“So, there seems to be a pattern from this administration that the president and his henchman, Mr. Barr, are willing to get rid of anyone that’s investigating people that get close to Donald Trump,” Warner said, adding that he had no direct evidence that the removal was connected to ongoing investigations.
In a Saturday letter informing Berman of his dismissal, Barr rejected the prosecutor’s suggestion that ongoing cases might be thwarted by the action.
“Your statement also wrongly implies that your continued tenure in the office is necessary to ensure that cases now pending in the Southern District of New York are handled appropriately,” Barr wrote. “This is obviously false. I fully expect that the office will continue to handle all cases in the normal course and pursuant to the department’s applicable standards, policies, and guidance.”
He urged supervisors to take any allegations of “improper interference” to the Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz for review.
In his Friday night statement, the attorney general said that the president was appointing New Jersey’s chief federal prosecutor, Craig Carpenito, to serve in New York, pending Senate action on Clayton’s nomination. But Barr walked that back Saturday, saying that Berman’s top deputy, Audrey Strauss, would take charge as acting U.S. attorney until a replacement was seated – a move that appeared to mollify Berman’s initial concerns.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump’s most vocal allies in Congress, said the president possessed the authority to remove Berman. He also expressed “confidence” in Strauss to run the Manhattan office “in a professional and ethical manner.”
Graham, whose committee would weigh the confirmation of a nominee to replace Berman, said that he knew Clayton and “believe him to be a fine man and accomplished lawyer.”
But the chairman also signaled that he would not move forward with the nomination without sign off from New York’s two senators.
Both Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have called on Clayton to remove his name from consideration.
“I will not be complicit in helping President Trump and Attorney General Barr fire a U.S. attorney who is reportedly investigating corruption in this administration,” Gillibrand said.
Senate Minority Leader Schumer has called on Justice’s inspector general to review the action.
Trump, meanwhile, sidestepped on Saturday the firestorm raging over Berman and his own decision to fire the prosecutor.
The decision to remove Berman, the president said, was Barr’s to make.
“I’m not involved,” Trump told reporters before departing for a campaign rally in Oklahoma.
After days of controversy over Trump’s choice to hold his first rally since the coronavirus lockdowns in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it was changed to July 20.
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