President Donald Trump has fired Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York in Manhattan who has led investigations of the president’s inner circle. Berman had refused to step down from his post Friday after US Attorney General Bill Barr attempted to oust him.
Barr, who has long been accused of protecting Trump’s close allies, announced Berman’s resignation in a press release late Friday in an apparent effort to draw little attention to the matter. He named Jay Clayton, the current chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who has no experience as a prosecutor, as Trump’s pick for Berman’s successor.
But within hours, Berman countered that he did not, and would not, tender his resignation and that the first he had heard of it was from Barr’s press release.
“I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position,” Berman said in a statement. “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.”
On Saturday, however, Barr told Berman in a letter that the president had fired him: “Because you have declared you have no intention of resigning, I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so,” wrote Barr. Berman’s deputy, Audrey Strauss, will serve as the acting US attorney in Manhattan until his replacement is confirmed by the Senate, according to the Washington Post.
A donor to Trump’s campaign and former colleague of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Berman has been investigating Giuliani’s efforts to find damaging information in Ukraine about Trump’s political opponents to determine whether he violated laws on lobbying for foreign entities. He has also indicted two of Giuliani’s business associates and successfully pursued a case against Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about Trump’s plans to build a skyscraper in Moscow.
Berman is not the first official who the Trump administration has ousted in recent months. Trump also fired Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who played a central role in bringing the whistleblower complaint at the heart of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry to light, and State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was reportedly investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Berman was appointed as the acting US attorney for Manhattan in 2018 by then-US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, taking over after Trump fired his predecessor, Preet Bharara, who also refused to resign. By law, acting officials are only supposed to serve for a maximum of 120 days before the Senate confirms a permanent appointee, handpicked by the president.
But Trump, who has said he prefers acting officials because he has more flexibility to replace them, never nominated anyone else to fill Berman’s post. A federal court in Manhattan therefore invoked a rarely used power to appoint Berman to the position permanently in April 2018, allowing him to remain in the post until the Senate confirms another appointee.
How Bill Barr politicized the Justice Department
The Justice Department has historically operated independently from the executive branch, but under Trump, that paradigm has appeared to change.
Sessions, who actively campaigned on Trump’s behalf in 2016, recused himself from investigations into possible Russian interference in the president’s election in order to preserve their impartiality — a decision for which Trump publicly berated him. Barr, by contrast, has repeatedly intervened in legal matters linked to Trump while denying any political motivations.
In February, Barr’s DOJ recommended a more lenient, unspecified prison sentence for Roger Stone, a political consultant and Trump’s friend, overriding prosecutors’ petition for a seven- to nine-year sentence after the president complained on Twitter that Stone was being treated too punitively. The move prompted the resignation of several prosecutors within the department who had been working on the Stone case, which led to his high-profile conviction for obstructing a House Intelligence Committee inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election and other related crimes.
In May, Barr decided to drop charges against Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who resigned just weeks after his appointment in 2017, when reports surfaced that he had misrepresented his conversations with the Russian ambassador to Vice President Mike Pence. Flynn had pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Trump, who said he would consider pardoning Flynn, publicly praised Barr’s decision.
And earlier this month, Barr sought to block the publication of a memoir by Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, which asserts that Trump placed a condition on releasing security aid to Ukraine: that the country publicly pursue an investigation against Joe Biden, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee. If true, Bolton’s account would confirm the basis of Democrats’ failed efforts to remove Trump from office. A federal judge denied the DOJ’s request to block the publication on Saturday.