An extraordinary standoff between Attorney General William Barr and Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor ended on Saturday when the prosecutor agreed to leave his job with an assurance that investigations by the prosecutor’s office into the president’s allies would not be disturbed.
US Attorney Geoffrey S Berman announced he would leave his post, ending increasingly nasty exchanges between Barr and Berman.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, had distanced himself from the dispute, telling reporters the decision “was all up to the attorney general”, even as Barr stated in a letter that he had asked the president to remove Berman.
In a letter to Berman earlier on Saturday, Barr wrote that he was “surprised and quite disappointed” by Berman’s late-night public statement in which he refused to quit his job, saying Berman had made a “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 of New York, will become the acting United States attorney until a permanent replacement is installed.
The post is considered one of the most prominent for federal prosecutors in the country.
Berman had shown up to work at his office on Saturday, hours after Barr had unexpectedly announced that he was stepping down. Replying to that announcement, Berman had said he had no intention of leaving the post until the Senate confirms his successor.
‘Potential corruption of the legal process’
The imbroglio sets up an extraordinary political and constitutional clash between the Justice Department and one of the nation’s top districts, which has tried major political cases over the years and is currently investigating Trump’s personal lawyer Giuliani’s international business dealings.
Giuliani served as an unofficial envoy to Ukraine for Trump, and his dealings were at the heart of impeachment proceedings against the president, who was later acquitted.
The move is also set to deepen tensions between the department and congressional Democrats who have accused Barr of politicising the agency and acting more like Trump’s personal lawyer than the country’s chief law enforcement officer.
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, people familiar with the situation told The Associated Press news agency.
Meanwhile, the White House has announced that Trump is 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 chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican and Trump ally, said he was unlikely to proceed with Clayton’s nomination unless New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, gave their consent to the pick.
Schumer has said the bid to remove Berman “reeks of potential corruption of the legal process”, while Gillibrand said she would “not be complicit” in helping to fire a prosecutor investigating corruption.
Both lawmakers called for Clayton to withdraw from consideration.
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, said before Berman’s firing that the committee would invite him to testify this coming week.
Prosecution of Trump associates
The federal prosecutor’s office in New York has recently prosecuted a number of Trump associates, including president’s former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who served a prison sentence for lying to Congress and campaign finance crimes.
Berman oversaw 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 re-election.
Attention refocused on the office this past week after news organisations obtained copies of former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s tell-all book, in which he alleges that Trump sought to cut a deal to stop federal prosecutors in New York from investigating whether Halkbank violated US sanctions against Iran in order to free an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey.