WASHINGTON — The powerful U.S. attorney in Manhattan who has been overseeing investigations of President Donald Trump’s allies showed up at his office to work Saturday, defying the attorney general who abruptly acted hours earlier to oust the prosecutor.
“I’m just here to do my job,″ Geoffrey S. Berman told reporters.
The administration’s push to cast aside Berman has set up an extraordinary political and constitutional clash between the Justice Department and one of the nation’s top districts, which has tried major mob and terrorism cases over the years and is investigating Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. “I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position,” Berman said in a statement late Friday.
It also is deepening tensions between the department and congressional Democrats who have accused Attorney General William Barr of politicizing the agency and acting more like Trump’s personal lawyer than the country’s chief law enforcement officer.
Barr offered no explanation for his action. The White House announced that Trump was nominating Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton, a well-connected Wall Street lawyer has virtually no experience as a federal prosecutor, for the job.
The timing of the decision mystified people familiar with the matter in the Southern District who could point to no clear reason for Berman’s removal. His job had always seemed in jeopardy and Berman was never given the sense that it was secure, according to these people, who weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the matter and spoke condition of anonmity. His office also took actions on some important cases without first informing Washington. But the various investigations are all still ongoing and no charges seem imminent, they said.
A senior department official said Clayton was planning to leave the administration, wanted to move back to New York and expressed interest in the Southern District position, and Barr thought he would be a good fit, said the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss internal department matters and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Only days ago, allegations surfaced from former Trump national security adviser John Bolton that the president sought to interfere in an investigation by Berman’s office into the state-owned Turkish bank in an effort to cut deals with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he was unlikely to proceed with Clayton’s nomination unless New York’s senators, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, gave their consent to the pick. Schumer already has said the bid to oust Berman “reeks of potential corruption of the legal process.”
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said his committee was inviting Berman to testify this coming week. Schumer called for the department’s inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate.
Berman’s statement said he would stay on the job until a nominee was confirmed by the Senate. He challenged Barr’s power to remove, given that Berman was appointed by federal judges, not by the president. Under federal law, a U.S. attorney who is appointed by district court judges can serve “until the vacancy is filled.”
But the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel argued in a 1979 opinion that the “power to remove a court-appointed U.S. attorney rests with the president.” It says “the president is responsible for the conduct of a U.S. Attorney’s office and therefore must have the power to remove one he believes is an unsuitable incumbent, regardless of who appointed him.”
The Justice official said the department planned to have Craig Carpenito, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, take over the Manhattan office temporarily, starting on July 3.
Federal prosecutors in New York have overseen numerous prosecutions and investigations with ties to Trump in recent years. That includes an ongoing investigation into Giuliani’s business dealings, including whether he failed to register as a foreign agent, according to people familiar with the matter. They were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The office has also prosecuted a number of Trump associates, including Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who served a prison sentence for lying to Congress and campaign finance crimes. Cohen was recently released from a federal prison in New York to continue serving his sentence on home confinement over coronavirus concerns.
Berman has overseen the prosecution of two Florida businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were associates of Giuliani and tied to the Ukraine impeachment investigation. The men were charged in October with federal campaign finance violations, including hiding the origin of a $325,000 donation to a group supporting Trump’s reelection.
Attention refocused on the office this past week after news organizations, including The Associated Press, obtained copies of Bolton’s tell-all book. Bolton alleges in the book that Trump sought to cut a deal to stop federal prosecutors in New York from investigating whether Halkbank violated U.S. sanctions against Iran in order to free an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey.
Six weeks after the pastor’s release, Bolton writes, Trump told Erdogan on a call that “he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people.”
The episode Bolton describes occurred months after Berman assumed the role of U.S. attorney.
A Republican who contributed to the president’s election campaign, Berman worked for the same law firm as Giuliani and was put in his job by the Trump administration. But as U.S. attorney, he won over some skeptics after he went after Trump allies, and had a direct hand in other investigations that have angered the president.
Berman was appointed by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January 2018, after Preet Bharara, then U.S. attorney in New York, was fired. Bharara had refused to resign along with dozens of other federal prosecutors appointed by President Barack Obama.
Months later, FBI agents raided Cohen’s offices, an act the president decried as a politically motivated witch hunt. Berman withdrew from Cohen’s prosecution; it was never explained why.
The following April, in the absence of a formal nomination by Trump, the judges in Manhattan federal court voted to appoint Berman to the position permanently. The White House never said why Trump didn’t formally nominate Berman.
Yet the links between the White House and some of Berman’s investigations were clear. His office subpoenaed Trump’s inaugural committee for a wide range of documents as part of an investigation into various potential crimes, including possible illegal contributions from foreigners to inaugural events.
Weeks before the 2018 midterm election, Berman announced insider trading charges against an ardent Trump supporter, Republican Rep. Chris Collins. Collins, who represented western New York, has since pleaded guilty and resigned. He’s scheduled to soon report to prison.
Under Berman’s tenure, his office also brought charges against Michael Avenatti, the combative lawyer who gained fame by representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in lawsuits involving Trump. Avenatti was convicted in February of trying to extort Nike after prosecutors said he threatened to use his media access to hurt Nike’s reputation and stock price unless the sportswear giant paid him up to $25 million.
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