Geoffrey S. Berman, who was abruptly dismissed by President Donald Trump last month from his post as the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, told lawmakers Thursday that Attorney General William Barr tried unsuccessfully to pressure him to resign voluntarily, warning that a firing could ruin his career.
Testifying before a closed-door hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, Berman recounted being summoned with no warning in June to a meeting with Barr at the Pierre Hotel in New York, in which the attorney general asked him to step down. Berman said he rebuffed Barr time and again during a tense, 45-minute discussion, telling him he would not resign and did not want to be fired, according to copies of his prepared statement obtained by The New York Times.
Barr repeatedly tried to change Berman’s mind, he testified, offering him a job as head of the civil division at the Justice Department and warning “that getting fired from my job would not be good for my résumé or future job prospects.”
“I told the attorney general that there were important investigations in the office that I wanted to see through to completion,” Berman told the committee members, according to the statement.
In his prepared testimony, Berman did not speculate as to Barr’s motive for his dismissal as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York or discuss in any detail the highly sensitive corruption investigations of members of Trump’s inner circle that his office oversaw. He did offer new details about his interactions with the attorney general and made it clear that he had raised objections to the way Barr was planning to replace him.
Many of Barr’s critics have speculated that the attorney general was acting based on Trump’s distaste for Berman and the sensitive inquiries he oversaw, ushering him out to put in place a replacement without prosecutorial experience. Berman’s appearance was part of a broader inquiry by House Democrats into what they consider attempts by Barr to politicize the administration of justice.
Berman’s office sent Michael D. Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and fixer, to prison and has been investigating Trump’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Barr has denied that removing or replacing Berman was an attempt to interfere in an investigation being handled by the Southern District of New York. He authorized the department’s independent inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, to investigate any actions or decisions that “office supervisors conclude are improper interference with a case.”
Berman was fired June 20, a day after his meeting with Barr and after a chaotic 24 hours in which the president and Barr tried to replace him with an ally of the administration, Jay Clayton, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, a plan that eventually fell apart.
Berman said he told Barr that Clayton was “an unqualified choice” for the Southern District post because he had never been a federal prosecutor nor had criminal legal experience.
Berman told the committee that he had also consulted with private lawyers after talking with Barr to be ready to mount a legal challenge if he were dismissed. He said he ultimately chose not to litigate his removal after learning that his “hand-picked and trusted deputy,” Audrey Strauss, would become acting U.S. attorney until a permanent successor was in place.
Berman’s case is just part of the larger inquiry. Two department officials testified publicly last month that they had witnessed political appointees intervene in criminal and antitrust cases to serve the political interests and preferences of Trump and Barr. And the attorney general is scheduled to go before lawmakers this month in his first time before the panel overseeing his department.
In a hearing in late June, Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, a prosecutor who worked on the Russia investigation, told the committee that senior department officials had overruled career prosecutors to recommend a more lenient sentence for Roger Stone, one of Trump’s longtime friends and campaign associates, “because of politics.” Zelinsky said that his supervisors explained that they were under political pressure to change the sentencing guidelines and that the head of the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington was “afraid of” Trump.
Berman, in his prepared remarks Thursday, said he was appearing before the committee at its request, and lawmakers agreed to voluntarily limit the scope of his testimony to avoid a conflict with the Justice Department. No department lawyers were expected to attend the session.
He was also expected to answer questions posed by bipartisan committee staff members and top lawmakers, a transcript of which was expected to be released in the coming days.
In recounting the events that led to his departure, Berman said he received an email June 18 from a member of Barr’s staff, asking him to meet the attorney general the next day at the Pierre Hotel in New York. He was not told the purpose of the meeting.
He said they met shortly after noon on a Friday in Barr’s hotel suite.
“There were sandwiches on the table,” he said, “but nobody ate.”
According to Berman’s statement, Barr began by saying he wanted to make a change in the Southern District and offered Berman the civil division post, which was opening up.
Barr said the move was prompted solely by Clayton’s desire to return to New York “and the administration’s desire to keep him on the team.”
Berman said he told Barr that he had no interest in overseeing the civil division or in resigning, Berman testified, saying that he loved his job and asking if Barr was in any way dissatisfied with his performance. Barr said he was not.
But he said Barr pressed him to take the civil division post, saying Berman could “sit there for five months and see who won the election before deciding what came next for me.”
Barr told him that if he did not resign, he would be fired, Berman said.
That evening, Berman said, Barr spoke with him briefly by phone, asking whether he would be interested in becoming chairman of the SEC – the job Clayton held.
Berman answered that his position was unchanged and asked to arrange for a final conversation about the matter Monday. But Barr did not want to wait, he testified, and instead said he would call Berman the next day, a Saturday.
Later that night, Berman said he learned the Justice Department had issued a news release saying he was “stepping down.”
“That statement was false,” Berman said. He issued his own statement, saying he had not resigned and intended to “ensure that this office’s important cases continue unimpeded.”
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