President Trump on firing of Geoffrey Berman: ‘I’m not involved’

Political Connection

Geoffrey S. Berman, United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, arrives to his office in New York on Saturday, June 20, 2020. The Justice Department moved abruptly Friday night to oust Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan overseeing key prosecutions of President Donald Trump’s allies and an investigation of his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. But Berman said he was refusing to leave his post and his ongoing investigations would continue. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Attorney General Bill Barr said in a letter Saturday that President Donald Trump had fired Geoffrey Berman, the powerful prosecutor atop the Manhattan US Attorney’s office who has investigated Trump’s allies, after Berman 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.”

But Trump said Saturday he wasn’t involved with the decision.

“Well, that’s all up to the attorney general. Attorney General Barr is working on that,” Trump said on the South Lawn ahead of his departure for his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “That’s his department, not my department. But we have a very capable attorney general so that’s really up to him. I’m not involved.”

The remarkable escalation comes after Barr tried to remove Berman on Friday, but Berman defied Barr by refusing to step down. In an extraordinary statement sent roughly an hour after Barr said Berman was set to leave the office, 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.

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’s a real possibility that the nomination of Jay Clayton to replace him 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.

Berman, seemingly undeterred by the controversy, showed up to work Saturday morning, telling reporters: “I’m just here to do my job.”

ORIGINAL STORY (AP) — Attorney General William Barr on Saturday told the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan that President Donald Trump had removed him from the job, deepening tensions between the country’s chief law enforcement officer and a high-profile U.S. attorney who had been overseeing investigations of Trump’s allies.

U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman intends to continue to fight his removal.

The whirlwind chain of events began Friday night, when Barr announced that Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, had resigned. Hours later, the prosecutor issued a statement denying that he had resigned and saying that his office’s “investigations would move forward without delay or interruption.”

On Saturday morning, he showed to work, telling reporters, “I’m just here to do my job.”

In a letter made public by the Justice Department later Saturday, Barr said he expected to continue speaking with Berman about other possible positions within the department and was surprised by the statement he released.

“Unfortunately, with your statement of last night, you have chosen public spectacle over public service,” Barr wrote, adding that the idea that Berman had to continue on the job to safeguard investigations was “false.”

“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,” he wrote. “This is obviously false.”

The administration’s push to cast aside Berman set up an extraordinary political and constitutional clash between the Justice Department and one of the nation’s top districts, which has tried major mob and terrorism cases over the years and is investigating Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

It also deepened tensions between the department and congressional Democrats, who have accused Barr of politicizing the agency and acting more like Trump’s personal lawyer than the country’s chief law enforcement officer.

Barr offered no explanation for his action. The White House announced that Trump was nominating Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton, a well-connected Wall Street lawyer with virtually no experience as a federal prosecutor, for the job.

People familiar with the matter in the Southern District could point to no clear reason for Berman’s removal, though they noted his job had always seemed in jeopardy and Berman was never given the sense that it was secure.

Berman’s office also took actions on some important cases without first informing Washington. But the various investigations are still ongoing and no charges seem imminent, said the people familiar with the matter, who weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

A senior department official said Clayton was planning to leave the administration, wanted to move back to New York and expressed interest in the Southern District position, and Barr thought he would be a good fit. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss internal department matters and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Only days ago, allegations surfaced from former Trump national security adviser John Bolton that the president sought to interfere in an investigation by Berman’s office into the state-owned Turkish bank in an effort to cut deals with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he was unlikely to proceed with Clayton’s nomination unless New York’s senators, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, gave their consent to the pick. Schumer said the bid to oust Berman “reeks of potential corruption of the legal process” and Gillibrand said she would “not be complicit” in helping to fire a prosecutor investigating corruption. Both lawmakers called for Clayton to withdraw from consideration.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said his committee was inviting Berman to testify this coming week. Schumer also called for the department’s inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate.

Berman’s statement Friday night said he would stay on the job until a nominee was confirmed by the Senate. He challenged Barr’s power to remove, given that Berman was appointed by federal judges, not by the president. Under federal law, a U.S. attorney who is appointed by district court judges can serve “until the vacancy is filled.”

But the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel argued in a 1979 opinion that the “power to remove a court-appointed U.S. attorney rests with the president.” It says “the president is responsible for the conduct of a U.S. Attorney’s office and therefore must have the power to remove one he believes is an unsuitable incumbent, regardless of who appointed him.”

Barr said in his letter that the deputy U.S. attorney, Audrey Strauss, would take over the top job until a permanent successor is in place.

Federal prosecutors in New York have overseen numerous prosecutions and investigations with ties to Trump in recent years. That includes an ongoing investigation into Giuliani’s business dealings, including whether he failed to register as a foreign agent, according to people familiar with the matter. They were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The office has also prosecuted a number of Trump associates, including Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who served a prison sentence for lying to Congress and campaign finance crimes. Cohen was recently released from a federal prison in New York to continue serving his sentence on home confinement over coronavirus concerns.

Berman has overseen the prosecution of two Florida businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were associates of Giuliani and tied to the Ukraine impeachment investigation. The men were charged in October with federal campaign finance violations, including hiding the origin of a $325,000 donation to a group supporting Trump’s reelection.

A Republican who contributed to the president’s election campaign, Berman worked for the same law firm as Giuliani and was put in his job by the Trump administration. But as U.S. attorney, he won over some skeptics after he went after Trump allies, and had a direct hand in other investigations that have angered the president.

Berman was appointed by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January 2018, after Preet Bharara, then U.S. attorney in New York, was fired. Bharara had refused to resign along with dozens of other federal prosecutors appointed by President Barack Obama.

Months later, FBI agents raided Cohen’s offices, an act the president decried as a politically motivated witch hunt. Berman withdrew from Cohen’s prosecution; it was never explained why.

The following April, in the absence of a formal nomination by Trump, the judges in Manhattan federal court voted to appoint Berman to the position permanently. The White House never said why Trump didn’t formally nominate Berman.

Under Berman’s tenure, his office also brought charges against Michael Avenatti, the combative lawyer who gained fame by representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in lawsuits involving Trump. Avenatti was convicted in February of trying to extort Nike after prosecutors said he threatened to use his media access to hurt Nike’s reputation and stock price unless the sportswear giant paid him up to $25 million.

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