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A new book claims Trump’s efforts to politicize the Justice Department were worse than we knew

Fired US Attorney Geoffrey Berman has some stories to tell.

US President Donald Trump and US Attorney General William Barr step off Air Force One upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on September 1, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

During the Trump administration, Geoffrey Berman was the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) until he was abruptly fired in June 2020. It was widely viewed as one of many examples of Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr trying to politicize the Justice Department.

Now, Berman has written a book giving his version of what happened behind the scenes. The New York Times’s Benjamin Weiser obtained a copy of that book, Holding the Line (which will be released on September 13), and in it, Berman reveals new details of how top Justice officials tried to steer the Department toward prosecutions Trump wanted — often seemingly acting in direct response to Trump’s tweets.

As president, Trump often publicly and privately said he wanted prosecutors to lay off his allies and go after his perceived political enemies — from top Democrats like Hillary Clinton and the Bidens, to his own former appointees like John Bolton, to former FBI officials like James Comey and Andrew McCabe.

These demands ran up against a Justice Department culture that prized independence from the White House on criminal matters. Trump’s demands for prosecutions were usually legally dubious if not utterly groundless, and even many of his own DOJ appointees were reluctant to pursue them. As I wrote in August 2020, there was effectively a dam preventing the president’s corrupt or political pressures from crashing through and flooding the DOJ — but, as Trump’s term stretched on, that dam began to spring more and more leaks.

Berman, in his telling, was part of the dam. And according to the Times, his book provides new details on how he faced private pressure to prosecute two Trump targets in particular: former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Obama White House Counsel Greg Craig. In both cases, Berman reveals a troubling pattern: Once he concluded no charges were merited, top Trump appointees working under the attorney general simply reassigned each case to another US Attorney’s office in the hope of a different outcome.

Trump allegedly concocted an investigation into John Kerry

Back in May 2018, the Boston Globe reported that Kerry, who left public office at the end of the Obama administration, had recently engaged in “some unusual shadow diplomacy with a top-ranking Iranian official” — specifically, he’d met Iran’s foreign minister to discuss Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, which Trump was about to withdraw from.

Trump was furious about this report, tweeting on May 7 that this was “possibly illegal” for Kerry to do. Two days later, Berman claims that Justice Department officials assigned an investigation of Kerry to his US Attorney’s office, per the Times.

Trump wanted Kerry prosecuted under the Logan Act, which bans private citizens from conducting US foreign policy. The law was last used in 1852; some legal experts now view it as a “dead letter” and question its constitutionality.

However, when the FBI investigated Trump advisers’ links to Russia, they did research whether the Logan Act would apply to Michael Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office — though they never came close to bringing charges related to it.

After another Trump tweet on the matter in April 2019, Berman writes that Justice Department officials called members of his team and peppered them with questions about the Kerry investigation’s speed. A few months later, after Berman told DOJ higher-ups that he wouldn’t pursue charges in the matter, he was informed that they would send the case to a different US Attorney’s office, in Maryland (which did not end up pursuing charges either).

Trump’s desire to prosecute Kerry under the Logan Act was already publicly known. John Bolton wrote in his memoir that Trump was “obsessed” with it, mentioning it “in meeting after meeting in the Oval” to Barr “or anybody listening.” But it was not known that the Department had actually investigated Kerry, or reassigned the case to a separate office.

Politics loomed over Greg Craig’s indictment

The case against Greg Craig — a White House Counsel in the Obama administration — did not originate in the mind of Donald Trump, but rather with special counsel Robert Mueller.

As part of his probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Mueller had dug deep into work Trump’s campaign chair, Paul Manafort, had done for Ukraine’s pro-Russian political faction. Craig, as a partner at the law firm Skadden, had played a part in that work. (Manafort arranged a deal in which Craig’s firm would write a report assessing a controversial prosecution of a Ukrainian politician.)

Mueller’s team argued that Manafort didn’t properly register as a foreign agent, and they had similar questions about Craig and his firm, so they referred an investigation elsewhere in the Justice Department.

The case was sent to the Southern District of New York in March 2018, and Berman’s team proceeded to investigate it; Skadden would eventually make a settlement agreement with the DOJ. But the question remained about whether Craig should face criminal charges.

Per the Times, Berman writes in his book that he heard a presentation from Craig’s lawyers and concluded Craig was innocent. Shortly afterward, in September 2018, Ed O’Callaghan, a top Justice official, called Berman’s deputy at SDNY. Since SDNY had just criminally charged Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen and a Republican congressman, Chris Collins, O’Callaghan allegedly wanted to “even things out” with charges against a Democrat before election day: Craig. (O’Callaghan denied to the Times that he had made such a statement.)

Berman eventually reported back that his office wouldn’t charge Craig. So Justice Department higher-ups looked for someone who would, and sent the case to the US Attorney’s office in the District of Columbia. That office later indicted Craig on one count of making false statements to DOJ’s Foreign Agents Registration Act unit, but he was acquitted at trial, and criticism swirled that the case was weak and politicized.

Berman’s revelations of these backroom pressures bolster those criticisms further. Notably, it’s not clear that Trump himself ever took a particular interest in Craig’s case, but by this account, one of his top officials wanted a Democrat charged and Craig fit the bill.

Dangers for a Trump second term

Despite Trump’s many efforts to bend the Justice Department to his whims, officials resisted many of his demands. None of his big targets — Clinton, Kerry, the Bidens, Comey, and McCabe — were prosecuted, and the Department largely did not assist him in his attempts to overturn the 2020 election result.

But if Trump should return to power after 2024, there’s no guarantee that resistance will continue. He would no longer need to constrain himself for reelection, and after January 6, he’s embittered against traditional Republican establishment forces he believes abandoned him.

So Trump and his team may well become more skilled at identifying and empowering true loyalists who really would act in Trump’s personal interests, defying law or tradition. Indeed, his recent legal peril will make that of paramount personal importance to him.

Furthermore, Trump allies have recently been floating a plan to purge many career government officials, including at the Justice Department and FBI, should he return to power, according to Axios’s Jonathan Swan. Trump has repeatedly argued that the Justice Department has been politicized against him, after four years of trying to politicize it against his enemies. So there’s every reason to expect he’d go much further in his second term — including to totally unprecedented places.

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