President Donald Trump on Saturday denied involvement in firing Geoffrey Berman, the powerful prosecutor atop the Manhattan US Attorney’s office, shortly after Trump’s attorney general sent Berman a letter saying the President had done so.
Attorney General William Barr told Berman, whose office has led prosecutions and investigations of Trump’s allies, that Trump had agreed to remove him 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 wrote 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.”
Speaking to reporters shortly after Barr’s letter was made public, however, Trump said, “That’s his department, not my department.” He added: “I’m not involved.”
Berman said in a statement several hours later that he would exit his post. “In light of Attorney General Barr’s decision to respect the normal operation of law and have Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss become Acting U.S. Attorney, I will be leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, effective immediately,” he said.
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, 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 also announced in his letter to Berman that the DOJ’s inspector general would provide oversight of the Manhattan US Attorney’s office, a step that is likely to cause New York federal prosecutors, who famously prize their independence, to balk.
“Going forward, if any actions or decisions are taken that office supervisors conclude are improper interference with a case, that information should be provided immediately to Michael Horowitz, the Department of Justice’s Inspector General, whom I am authorizing to review any such claim,” Barr wrote.
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.
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 said he would 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.
Meanwhile, it’s not clear if Clayton was aware prior to Barr’s announcement Friday that Berman wasn’t willingly exiting his post.
Clayton was recently approached about the top prosecutor’s job in Manhattan and was told that Berman was planning to step down, a person familiar with Clayton’s plans told CNN. Clayton didn’t know Berman had no plans to leave, this person said.
Clayton and Barr, who have known each other for years, discussed the possibility that Clayton could take the job.
That appears to contradict a Justice Department official’s claim, previously reported by CNN, that Clayton initiated the conversation. The person familiar with the matter said Saturday that Clayton wasn’t happy to become part of the standoff between Barr and Berman, and had been a willing participant in the job discussions for the Manhattan post based on his belief that Berman was exiting on his own accord.
Clayton didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.