(CNN)President Donald Trump on Saturday denied firing Geoffrey Berman, the powerful prosecutor atop the Manhattan US Attorney’s office, shortly after his attorney general sent Berman a letter saying the President had done so.
Attorney General William Barr’s letter on Saturday said Trump had fired Berman after he refused Barr’s effort a day prior to oust him.
“Unfortunately, with your statement of last night, you have chosen public spectacle over public service,” Barr said in his letter to Berman. “Because you have declared that you have no intention of resigning, I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so.”
Trump, however, speaking to reporters shortly after Barr’s letter was made public, said, “That’s his department, not my department.” He added: “I’m not involved.”
Berman’s firing caps a remarkable 24 hours that encompassed a power struggle over the leadership of the most prominent prosecutors’ office outside Washington, one that has prosecuted one of Trump’s lawyers, is investigating another and has probed the activities of the President himself.
During a meeting in New York on Friday, Barr had asked Berman to resign, but Berman refused, CNN reported, and hours later Barr issued a statement saying Berman had “stepped down.” Two hours later, around 11 p.m. ET on Friday, Berman said he had learned of his purported exit from a press release.
“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,” Berman said.
On Saturday morning, with news cameras staked outside his lower Manhattan office, Berman entered the building, telling reporters, “I issued a statement last night, I have nothing to add to that this morning. I’m just here to do my job.”
Barr’s letter Saturday noted that “by operation of law,” Berman’s current deputy, Audrey Strauss, will become Acting US Attorney, “and I anticipate that she will serve in that capacity until a permanent successor is in place.” On Friday evening, Barr said he intends to nominate as Berman’s permanent successor Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who has never been a prosecutor.
Barr’s effort to push out one of the most powerful prosecutors in the country had begun to run into headwinds Saturday, with Republicans signaling little appetite to fight to confirm a new US attorney amid Democratic accusations that the move was an effort to shield Trump’s associates from federal investigation.
Republicans on Capitol Hill were blindsided by the late Friday night effort by Barr to seek the ouster of Berman and showed little willingness to confirm a new nominee without Democratic support — meaning there is a real possibility that Clayton’s nomination could languish and Berman could stay at the post indefinitely.
The fast-moving developments seemed to catch by surprise Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump’s and Barr’s, who said Saturday he had not been told about the effort to fire Berman.
And in a significant announcement Saturday, Graham announced that he will honor tradition to let home-state senators sign off on a replacement for Berman’s post, meaning that Democrats essentially have veto power over a replacement to a position considered the most powerful US attorney job in the country.
This story has been updated with additional developments Saturday.