Trump, Barr fire Manhattan U.S. Attorney Berman after disputed resignation report

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Geoffrey S. Berman speaks at a news conference in New York
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District Geoffrey S. Berman attends a news conference on the indictment of Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman, David Correia, and Andrey Kukushnin for various charges related to violations of U.S. federal election laws in New York City, U.S.,October 10, 2019. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

President Donald Trump fired on Saturday the man whom Attorney General William Barr claimed last night had resigned on his own accord: U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, head of the Justice Department’s Southern District of New York office. Berman later said he would agree to leave the office.

In a letter informing Berman of his termination, Barr charged that the prosecutor had “chosen public spectacle over public service” after Berman said Friday night that he didn’t know of his own resignation until after Barr announced it in a press release that evening.

Trump further muddied the waters in this affair shortly after the release of Barr’s letter, when he claimed to reporters that he was “not involved” in Berman’s termination — though Barr explicitly wrote that the president carried out the order, at the attorney general’s request.

Berman removed all doubt about the situation Saturday when he formally announced he would leave office, effective immediately. He had served in the Southern District office for 2 1/2 years, and investigated several allies of President Trump, including his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and current legal counsel, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Barr had announced earlier on June 19 that Berman would step down from his post in favor of SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, whom Trump had nominated to the job. Initially, Barr said that U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Craig Cupertino would serve as acting U.S. Attorney in the Southern District, pending Clayton’s confirmation.

But while announcing Berman’s dismissal Saturday, Barr stated that Deputy U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Audrey Strauss would instead serve as the acting head of the office.

Berman said Barr’s decision “to respect the normal operation of law and have … Strauss become acting U.S. Attorney” was enough for him to leave the office immediately.

Speaking about Strauss, Berman said “she is the smartest, most principled and effective lawyer with whom I have ever had the privilege of working.”

“And I know that under her leadership, this office’s unparalleled [assistant U.S. attorneys], investigators, paralegals and staff will continue to safeguard the Southern District’s enduring tradition of integrity and independence,” Berman added.

Hours after Barr’s Friday announcement, Berman took to the Southern District’s Twitter account to state that he had no intention of resigning, and would remain on the job until the Senate confirmed a successor.

In his letter, the attorney general took exception with Berman’s remarks, claiming that he was hoping for the prosecutor’s cooperation “to facilitate a smooth transition.”

“When the Department of Justice advised the public of the president’s intent to nominate your successor, I had understood that we were in ongoing discussions concerning the possibility of your remaining in the Department or Administration in one of the other senior positions we discussed,” Barr wrote.

One of those senior positions, Barr claimed, was to serve as chair of the SEC — completing a trade of jobs with Clayton.

“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 advised Berman in his June 20 letter. 

The attorney general also disputed Berman’s assertion that the president had no authority to fire him, as he was a federal court appointee.

Furthermore, Barr dismissed speculation that Berman’s ouster was an effort by the Trump administration to obstruct the Southern District office’s ongoing investigations.

“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 wrote to Berman. He said any improper actions should be reported to Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general. 

Earlier on Saturday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on the Inspector General to investigate the decisions leading up to Berman’s dismissal. He also asked Clayton to withdraw his name from consideration for the post.

Read the full Barr letter below:

This story was updated on June 20 at 7:05 p.m.