With the indictment Thursday of associates of President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, New York federal prosecutors are yet again behind a criminal case that threatens Trump’s inner circle.
That has raised fears in law-enforcement circles that the head of the office, Manhattan US Attorney Geoffrey Berman, could be in the crosshairs of the President. But Justice Department officials say privately that they believe the high-profile nature of the case and the potential for political blowback if Berman were removed may help secure his position.
In recent months, the name of a top Justice Department official – Ed O’Callaghan, a former New York federal prosecutor – has been discussed in Washington as a possible nominee to replace Berman, according to Justice Department officials.
But the case charged Thursday has put a chill on any efforts to advance O’Callaghan for the job, these people said.
The case against the Giuliani associates – in which four men are charged with allegedly funneling foreign money into US elections – and its political implications, given that two of the men are central to the impeachment inquiry in the House, has put a spotlight on Berman. But it is just the latest in a string of inquiries from the office that have taken aim at Trump or his allies.
During Berman’s tenure, the office has prosecuted Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, a case from which Berman himself was recused; investigated whether the Trump Organization violated campaign-finance laws; and has now brought a case against men who aided Giuliani’s efforts to dig up dirt in Ukraine on Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. CNN has reported that Giuliani’s financial dealings with the two associates indicted on campaign finance-related charges are also under scrutiny by investigators overseeing the case.
A spokeswoman for the New York office declined to comment.
Berman, who is overseeing the case, has led the office since January 2018, and his initial appointment was met with some public and private concerns among the office’s prosecutors and others about his previous associations with Trump. Berman had held a position on Trump’s transition team, he was a law partner of Giuliani and Trump had personally interviewed him for the US attorney post, all of which worried members of the office who prize its reputation for independence, according to people familiar with the matter.
Berman and Giuliani never worked on a case together at their former firm, Greenberg Traurig, LLP, according to a person familiar with Berman’s time at the firm, and had little involvement with one another.
But in the time since Berman took office, according to people familiar with the matter, New York federal prosecutors have come to support and trust him, saying they believe he has upheld the office’s independence and pursued politically sensitive cases based solely on their legal merits.
Far from being beholden to the Justice Department leadership, the office irked Washington officials last year when it provided only last-minute notice before filing court documents that implicated – but didn’t name – Trump in the Cohen case, officials said.
Berman, though, is in an unusual position among US attorneys, and not just due to the prominence of his office’s work. US attorneys are typically nominated by the President and then are required to be confirmed by the Senate, but Berman is neither.
He was initially appointed on an interim basis by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for a 120-day term. At the time, some Democrats promised to use procedural efforts to block Berman’s nomination, saying his interview with Trump for the job posed a conflict of interest.
When the end of that term came without the White House putting forth a nominee, the judges of the federal district court in Manhattan voted to appoint Berman to remain in the job. As a result, under federal law, he can serve until the Senate confirms a Trump nominee.
That has left the door open to discussions in Washington about a possible nominee, perhaps O’Callaghan, who oversaw Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation and is a popular figure among alumni of the New York office. Some officials believe he could even win the support of Democratic senators.
For now, however, that effort appears inactive, and Berman and his office appear to have an assist from an important ally: Attorney General William Barr. Barr was briefed on the investigation into the Giuliani associates in February, and supported the prosecution, according to a US Justice Department official.