Stand-off with Attorney General Barr ends, as New York prosecutor agrees to resign

Geoffrey Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks during a news conference in New York March 25, 2019. — Reuters pic
Geoffrey Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks during a news conference in New York March 25, 2019. — Reuters pic

WASHINGTON, June 21 — Manhattan's top federal prosecutor Geoffrey Berman agreed to resign from his post on Saturday, after Attorney General William Barr said he would allow Berman's deputy to take over the job until a permanent replacement can be installed.

“In light of Attorney General Barr’s decision to respect the normal operation of law and have Deputy US Attorney Audrey Strauss become Acting US Attorney, I will be leaving the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, effective immediately,” Berman said in a statement.

Barr said on Saturday that President Donald Trump had fired Berman, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan whose office is investigating Trump's attorney Rudolph Giuliani, after Berman publicly refused to step down from his post.

In a letter to Berman, Barr said he was “surprised and quite disappointed” by Berman's statement late on Friday night in which he refused to quit his job, saying Berman had chosen “public spectacle over public service.”

“I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so,” Barr said, adding that the Deputy US Attorney Audrey Strauss for the Southern District on New York, will become the Acting US Attorney until a permanent replacement is installed.

Berman's termination marks another remarkable development in an escalating crisis at the Justice Department that started on Friday night, when Barr unexpectedly announced that Berman was stepping down and would be replaced by US Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton.

Berman, however, issued a statement of his own, saying he had no intention of stepping down until the Senate confirms his successor, and that his office's investigations would continue.

The standoff follows the latest in a series of unusual moves by Barr that critics say are meant to benefit Trump politically and undermine the independence of the Justice Department.

It also comes as Trump seeks to purge officials perceived as not fully supporting him. In recent weeks he has fired a series of agency watchdogs, including one who played a key role in Trump's impeachment earlier this year.

Berman's office, which is known for prosecuting terrorism cases, Wall Street financial crimes and government corruption, has not shied from taking on figures in Trump's orbit.

It oversaw the prosecution of Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal lawyer, indicted two Giuliani associates and launched a probe into Giuliani in connection with his efforts to dig up dirt on Trump's political adversaries in Ukraine.

Giuliani has not formally been accused of any wrongdoing.

Bolton's book

John Bolton, Trump's former national security adviser, also alleges in a new book the president once promised Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan he would oust prosecutors in Berman's office who were investigating a Turkish bank, Halkbank, for evading US sanctions against Iran.

“The president said to Erdogan at one point, 'Look, those prosecutors in New York are Obama people. Wait till I get my people in and then we'll take care of this.'” Bolton told ABC News in a pre-taped interview set to air today.

Berman's office ultimately secured an indictment against the bank, and the case is ongoing.

Barr, in his letter to Berman, said his departure would not impede ongoing investigations, and that any allegations of improper interference in a case should be referred to the Justice Department's inspector general.

“I fully expect that the office will continue to handle all cases in the normal course and pursuant to the Department’s applicable standards, policies, and guidance,” Barr wrote.

On Friday night, Barr had said he planned to install Craig Carpenito, the US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, as Acting US Attorney in Manhattan.

But in his letter yesterday the attorney general said he would instead designate Strauss, Berman's hand-picked No. 2 in the office, to take over in an acting capacity.

A spokesman for the US Attorney's office in Manhattan declined to comment on whether Strauss would accept the position.

As for Clayton, his nomination appeared on thin ice yesterday, after both Democratic Senators from New York voiced their opposition and urged him to withdraw his name from consideration.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham signalled yesterday that he would not proceed with reviewing the nomination unless both Senators from New York consented. But he also defended Trump's firing of Berman, saying it was “within the president's power.”

Clayton could not be reached for comment. — Reuters

Related Articles