U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday personally fired the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Geoffrey S. Berman, whose office has pursued one case after another that has rankled the President and his allies, putting his former personal lawyer in prison and investigating his current one.
It was the culmination of an extraordinary clash after years of tension between the White House and New York federal prosecutors.
In a letter released by the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr accused of Mr. Berman of choosing “public spectacle over public service” because he would not voluntarily step down from the position.
“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,” the letter read. Mr. Barr said Mr. Berman’s top deputy, Audrey Strauss, would become acting U.S. attorney.
The dismissal of Mr. Berman came after his office brought a series of highly sensitive cases that worried and angered Mr. Trump and others in his inner circle.
First, there was the arrest and prosecution in 2018 of Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s long-time legal fixer. Then, there was the indictment last year of a state-owned bank in Turkey with political connections that had drawn the President’s attention. More recently, the Manhattan prosecutors launched an inquiry into Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer and one of his most ardent supporters.
These simmering tensions finally erupted Friday night in the most public fashion possible as Mr. Barr suddenly announced that Mr. Berman was stepping down – only to discover two hours later that Mr. Berman had made his own announcement: that he was going nowhere.
Given the number of sore spots between Mr. Trump’s Justice Department and its most prominent outpost, it remained unclear precisely what prompted Mr. Barr to seek Mr. Berman’s removal well after nightfall at the start of a summer weekend. At least two of the politically sensitive cases – involving the Turkish bank and Mr. Giuliani – remain ongoing.
Speaking briefly to reporters outside the White House before heading to a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., Mr. Trump appeared to try to distance himself from the firing. Mr. Trump insisted that he was “not involved,” despite Mr. Barr’s letter.
Throughout the day Saturday, many current and former employees of the Southern District of New York, as the Manhattan prosecutors’ office is formally known, marvelled at just how sour relations with their colleagues in Washington had gotten. Some worried openly that the move threatened the independence of federal prosecutors.
“While there have always been turf battles between the Southern District and the Justice Department in Washington, and occasionally sharp elbows, to take someone out suddenly while they’re investigating the President’s lawyer, it is just unprecedented in modern times,” said David Massey, a defence attorney, who served as a Southern District prosecutor for nearly a decade.
Mr. Berman had declined to leave his post Friday after Mr. Barr said he would be replaced by Jay Clayton, the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission. But in a statement released Saturday evening, Mr. Berman said he would step down immediately in light of Mr. Barr’s “decision to respect the normal operation of law” in replacing him with Ms. Strauss.
Barr said that under Ms. Strauss, the office “will continue to safeguard the Southern District’s enduring tradition of integrity and independence.”
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The struggle over Mr. Berman came amid a broader purge of administration officials, one that has intensified in the months since the Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump at an impeachment trial. Since the beginning of the year, the President has fired or forced out inspectors general with independent oversight over executive branch agencies and other key figures from the trial.
But the decision to remove Mr. Berman unfolded with particularly dizzying speed and seemed to take even several of the participants aback.
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On Friday, Mr. Barr went to New York to meet with senior New York Police Department officials and, after nearly a month of public protests, to talk with them about “policing issues that have been at the forefront of national conversation and debate,” according to a Justice Department news release.
When he later met with Mr. Berman, according to two people familiar with the conversation, Mr. Barr suggested that Mr. Berman could take over the civil division of the Justice Department if he agreed to leave his position in Manhattan.
But Mr. Berman declined, and Mr. Barr quickly moved to fire him, announcing his decision in a highly unusual late-night Justice Department news release. Hours later, Mr. Berman issued a counterstatement denying he was leaving.
“I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position,” Mr. Berman’s statement said. He added that he had learned of Mr. Barr’s actions only from the news release.
In one sign that Mr. Barr’s efforts may have been hastily arranged, even the man poised to take Mr. Berman’s place, Clayton, appeared to be caught off guard.
Mr. Clayton, who is friendly with Mr. Trump and has golfed with the President at his club in Bedminster, N.J., had recently signalled to his friends that he wanted to return to his home in New York City and was interested in Mr. Berman’s job.
Still, Mr. Clayton sent an e-mail to his staff Thursday saying that he looked forward to seeing them in person, once work-at-home restrictions that had been put in place because of the coronavirus could be lifted. The e-mail offered no indication that Clayton was planning to leave the SEC, according to a person briefed on it.
Just after midnight Saturday, Mr. Clayton sent another e-mail to his employees, telling them about his new position. “Pending confirmation,” he wrote, “I will remain fully committed to the work of the commission and the supportive community we have built,” according to a copy reviewed by The New York Times.
Mr. Clayton could not be reached for comment.
Before Mr. Barr released his statement, Mr. Berman pointedly showed up to work Saturday, arriving at his office in lower Manhattan carrying a brown leather briefcase and clad in a blue suit. He was met outside the squat grey concrete building by a handful of photographers and television crews. “I’m just here to do my job,” he said, before walking inside.
Under Mr. Trump, the Justice Department has long believed that the Southern District was out of control. In no small part that was because prosecutors delayed in warning their colleagues in Washington that they were naming Mr. Trump – as “Individual-1” – in court documents in the Cohen prosecution.
When Mr. Barr became attorney general, officials in the deputy attorney general’s office, which oversees regional prosecutors, asked him to rein in Mr. Berman, who they believed was exacerbating the Southern District’s propensity for autonomy. The office has embraced its nickname the “Sovereign District” of New York because of its tradition of independence.
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One particular point of contention was the question of how Mr. Berman and his staff should investigate Halkbank, a Turkish state-owned bank that the office indicted last year, according to one department and two current lawyers.
In a new book, John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, wrote that Mr. Trump had promised the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in 2018 that he would intervene in the investigation of the bank, which had been accused of violating sanctions against Iran.
Then there was the inquiry into Mr. Giuliani, which has focused on whether he violated laws on lobbying for foreign entities in his efforts to dig up dirt in Ukraine on the President’s political rivals. That probe began after Mr. Berman’s office brought indictments against two of Mr. Giuliani’s close associates.
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Mr. Trump has told advisers he was pleased with the move to dismiss Mr. Berman, and a person close to the President described it as a long time coming.
Mr. Trump has been dissatisfied with Mr. Berman, despite choosing him for the post himself, going back to 2018. That year, he told the acting attorney general at the time, Matthew G. Whitaker, that he was frustrated that Mr. Berman had been recused from the case against Mr. Cohen and wanted him to somehow undo it.
A Republican who contributed to the President’s campaign and worked at the same law firm as Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Berman maintains that the Justice Department cannot fire him because of the way he came into his job.
In 2018, the attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, appointed Mr. Berman as interim U.S. attorney in Manhattan. But Mr. Trump never formally sent Mr. Berman’s nomination to the Senate, as is normal protocol. After 120 days, Mr. Berman’s official appointment to the post was made by the judges of the U.S. District Court.
Mr. Berman suggested that only those judges can dismiss him from his position, although that was far from a settled legal matter. A 1979 Justice Department memo holds the position that the president could fire a prosecutor in Mr. Berman’s position.
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Last year, Mr. Barr considered replacing Mr. Berman with Edward O’Callaghan, a top Justice Department official and a former Southern District prosecutor, according to people familiar with the matter. The plan fell through, however, in part because of the complex legal issues around how Mr. Berman was appointed.
In another potential issue, ousting Mr. Berman last year could have looked like retaliation after his office secured an indictment against the two associates of Mr. Giuliani, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Barr’s attempt to fire Mr. Berman got pushback Saturday from an unexpected source: Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee – the body that would approve Mr. Clayton’s nomination – suggested in a statement that he would allow New York’s two Democratic senators to thwart the nomination through a procedural manoeuvre. He complimented Mr. Clayton but noted that he had not heard from the administration about any formal plans to name him.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, urged Mr. Clayton to withdraw his name from consideration for the post and called for an investigation into the decision to dismiss Mr. Berman.
The move to push Mr. Berman out echoed Mr. Barr’s decision earlier this year to remove Jessie K. Liu from her role as the U.S. attorney in Washington, after Mr. Trump’s allies complained to the President and the attorney general that she was not sufficiently loyal.
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