President Donald Trump administration’s removal of the attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) from office has created a political mess.
US Attorney General William Barr said Saturday that President Trump has fired SDNY Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who initially refused to step down over unfinished investigations, reports Xinhua news agency.
In a letter to Berman, Barr accused him of choosing “public spectacle over public service”.
“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,” Barr wrote.
Speaking to reporters at the White House before leaving for a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday afternoon, Trump claimed that he was “not involved” in Berman’s firing.
“Well, that’s all up to the Attorney General. Attorney General Barr is working on that. That’s his department, not my department. But we have a very capable Attorney General … I’m not involved,” Trump said.
The President announced late Friday night his intention to nominate Jay Clayton, chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to replace Berman, who served as SDNY attorney from 2018.
In a stunning response, Berman, who ran the probe that sent Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to prison and is reportedly investigating his current personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, said that he, with “no intention of resigning”, has not resigned.
“I learned in a press release from the Attorney General tonight I was ‘stepping down’ as US Attorney,” Berman said on Friday night.
“I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate. Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption,” he added.
Besides Cohen and Giuliani, Berman’s office also subpoenaed Trump’s inaugural committee over an investigation into potential illegal contributions from foreigners and charged former Congressman Chris Collins, a Trump ally, with insider trading.
Barr said on Saturday that he was “surprised and quite disappointed” by Berman’s statement and “hoping for your cooperation to facilitate a smooth transition”.
“Your statement also wrongly implies that your continued tenure in the office is necessary to ensure that cases now pending in the Southern District of New York are handled appropriately,” the attorney general continued in the letter.
“I fully expect that the office will continue to handle all cases in the normal course and pursuant to the Department’s applicable standards, policies, and guidance,” Barr added.
Berman, in his latest statement Saturday evening, said that he is stepping down as SDNY attorney, effective immediately.
He explained that the decision was made in light of Barr’s “decision to respect the normal operations of law” and to let Deputy US Attorney Audrey Strauss to take the helm on an acting basis.
“I could leave the District in no better hands than Audrey’s,” Berman said, adding that “She is the smartest, most principled, and effective lawyer with whom I have ever had the privilege of working.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said his panel “will immediately open an investigation into this incident, as part of our broader investigation into Barr’s unacceptable politicization of the Department of Justice”.
“Neither the President nor the Department of Justice have offered any explanation for Mr. Berman’s purported dismissal. We know that the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York is engaged in investigations aimed at President Trump’s inner circle,” the New York Democrat said in a statement.
“The whole thing smacks of corruption and incompetence.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said that “any president has the ability to replace political appointees, such as US Attorneys”, adding that Trump’s decision to oust Berman ” falls within the president’s power”.
Attorneys, who represent the federal government in US district courts and courts of appeals, are typically nominated by the president and required to be confirmed by the Senate.
Berman, however, was initially appointed on an interim basis by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for a 120-day term.
When the end of that term came, without the White House putting forth a nominee, SDNY judges voted unanimously to allow Berman remain in the job “until the vacancy is filled”.
As a result, under federal law, he can serve until the Senate confirms a Trump nominee.
As named successor of Berman, Clayton, a corporate lawyer who has never served as a prosecutor, is a member of the President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, the Financial Stability Oversight Council, and the Financial Stability Board.
He is also on the Board of the International Organization of Securities Commissions.
“Under Chairman Clayton’s leadership, the SEC filed a total of 1,683 enforcement actions in fiscal years 2018 and 2019,” the White House said in a statement.
“Parties in the Commission’s actions and proceedings were ordered to pay a total of $8.294 billion in disgorgement of ill-gotten gains and penalties, and the Commission returned a total of $1.991 billion to harmed investors,” it added.
The SDNY is among the most prominent districts in the US.