US attorney general says Trump has fired federal prosecutor who refused to resign

Geoffrey Berman had insisted late on June 19, 2020 that he had no intention of quitting after US Attorney General William Barr issued a press release announcing his resignation.
Geoffrey Berman had insisted late on June 19, 2020 that he had no intention of quitting after US Attorney General William Barr issued a press release announcing his resignation. © AFP - JOHANNES EISELE/ file picture

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

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In a letter to Berman, Barr said 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 for the Southern District of New York, Audrey Strauss, will become the acting US Attorney in that district 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 the chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Berman, however, issued a statement of his own, saying he had no intention of stepping down until the Senate confirms his successor. 

Berman had investigated associates of the president, including overseeing the prosecution of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and probing advisor Rudy Giuliani's efforts to discredit Trump's political opponents.

After the Justice Department moved abruptly Friday night to oust Berman, the US attorney in Manhattan said he was refusing to leave his post and his ongoing investigations would continue.

Tensions between Justice Department, House Democrats 

Friday night's standoff set off an extraordinary clash between the Justice Department and one of the nation’s top districts, which has tried major mob and terror cases over the years. It will also likely deepen tensions between the Justice Department and congressional Democrats who have pointedly accused Barr of politicizing the agency and acting more like Trump’s personal lawyer than the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

The move to oust Berman also came days after allegations surfaced from former Trump national security adviser John Bolton that the president sought to interfere in an Southern District of New York investigation into the state-owned Turkish bank in an effort to cut deals with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Barr offered no explanation for why he was pushing out Berman in the statement he issued late Friday. 

In Berman's statement, he said he had learned that he was being pushed out through a press release. He vowed to stay on the job until a Trump nominee is confirmed by the Senate, challenging Barr’s power to remove him from office because he was appointed to the job by federal judges, not by the president. Under federal law, a US attorney who is appointed by district court judges can serve “until the vacancy is filled”.

Democrats have repeatedly accused Trump’s Justice Department of political interference, and those concerns have also been pervasive among some rank and file officials in the agency. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said his committee was inviting Berman to testify next week.

Numerous prosecutions, investigations tied to Trump

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 probe. The people 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 Cohen, who served a prison sentence for lying to Congress and campaign finance crimes.

Berman has also 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.

'Trump told Erdogan he would take care of things'

Attention refocused on the Southern District this week after news organisations, 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 US sanctions against Iran in order to free an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey.

Six weeks after the pastor’s release, Bolton writes that on a call with the Turkish president, “Trump then told Erdogan 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 White House is seeking to block the public release of Bolton’s book, saying it is being published without formal authorisation that the manuscript was free of classified information.

The episode Bolton describes occurred months after Berman assumed the role of US attorney.

Appointed by Trump's former Attorney General

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 US 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 US 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 recused himself from Cohen’s prosecution though 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.

And weeks before the 2018 midterm election, Berman announced insider trading charges against an ardent Trump supporter, House Republican Chris Collins. Collins, who represented western New York, has since resigned.

Under Berman’s tenure, his office also brought charges against Michael Avenatti, the combative lawyer who gained fame by representing pornography 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.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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