Update on June 20 at 9:30 p.m.: The standoff between the Justice Department and Manhattan’s chief prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, ended Saturday as the U.S. attorney said he would step down. In a statement Saturday evening, Berman said that he would step down immediately after Barr respected “the normal operation of law” by naming his deputy, Audrey Strauss, to lead the office in an acting capacity until President Donald Trump’s appointee is confirmed. “It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve as this District’s U.S. Attorney and a custodian of its proud legacy,” Berman said.
Update on June 20 at 4:45 p.m.: Attorney General William Barr told Manhattan’s chief federal prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, that President Donald Trump had fired him after he refused to resign. “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,” Barr said in a letter to the prosecutor. In the terse letter, Barr said that with his refusal to reign, Berman had “chosen public spectacle over public service” and said it was “false” to claim that he needed to stay on the job to make sure the ongoing investigations continue.
Even though the letter Barr sent Berman specifically said Trump fired him, the president doesn’t seem to think he had anything to do with it. “I’m not involved,” Trump told reporters Saturday afternoon, claiming the decision was up to Barr.
Even though Barr doesn’t come out and say it, in his letter he seems to make a change in his plans of who would take over Berman’s role. On Friday, Barr had said Craig Carpenito, the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, would take over the office in an acting role until Trump’s nominee, Jay Clayton, was confirmed. On Saturday, Barr said Berman’s No. 2, Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss for the Southern District on New York, will become the acting head of the office until there is a permanent replacement.
It wasn’t clear whether Barr’s letter would be the final word on the matter of Berman’s future. “I’m just here to do my job,” Berman told reporters when he showed up for work Saturday.
Original post: Attorney General William Barr surprisingly moved on Friday night to fire the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, Geoffrey S. Berman, who has overseen several prosecutions of top allies of President Donald Trump and whose office has been investigating his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani. But Berman refused to step down, launching a dramatically public standoff that raises fresh questions about Barr’s willingness to put the Justice Department’s historic independence from politics on the line in order to benefit the president. The attempted ouster also appears to fall in line with recent moves by Trump to get rid of officials (usually late on Friday) who are not seen as fully loyal, such as when he fired a number of agency watchdogs over the past couple of weeks.
Around an hour after Barr said Berman was going to be leaving his post, Berman issued a defiant statement saying he learned of the news that he was “stepping down” via a press release, making clear he had no plans to go anywhere right away. “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. “Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption.”
Berman has led the office that has been at the center of several key investigations related to Trump associates. His office was the one that led the prosecution of Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Berman also oversaw the prosecution of Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who have been charged with federal campaign finance violations. And Berman was fired shortly after word that former National Security adviser John Bolton wrote in his book that Trump tried to get involved in an investigation overseen by Berman’s office into a Turkish bank.
In his press release, Barr had said that Trump would nominate Jay Clayton, the current chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission to take over the position held by Berman. While the Senate considers the nomination, Barr said, Craig Carpenito, who is the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, will serve as the Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York starting on July 3. It is unclear whether that can actually happen. Berman was not confirmed by the Senate. He was appointed interim U.S. attorney in Manhattan in 2018 and Trump never formally sent his nomination to the Senate. The formal appointment was later made by the judges of the district court and the law that allows that to happen states that he can remain in the position until it is filled.
Clayton has never served as a prosecutor and is not a litigator, two key characteristics that are usually seen as requirements to hold such a prominent U.S. attorney position. In fact, if he is confirmed, Clayton would be the first non-prosecutor to lead the Southern District of New York. It seems personal friendships played a role in the appointment. Barr and Clayton have reportedly known each other for years and Clayton was planning to leave his current role to go back to New York. Clayton reportedly told Barr about his interest in the job and Barr agreed.
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