The Trump administration’s ouster of one of America’s most powerful prosecutors raises fresh and glaring suspicions about its assault on the independence of the justice system and its respect for the rule of law that underpins constitutional governance.
Attorney General William Barr said in a letter Saturday that President Donald Trump had fired Geoffrey Berman, the powerful prosecutor atop the Manhattan US Attorney’s office who has investigated Trump’s allies, after Berman refused Barr’s effort a day prior to oust him.
“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 said.
On Friday night, Barr’s declaration that he replaced Berman renewed the debate over the extent to which Barr is acting on Trump’s interests rather than the nation’s. The office of Berman, who had refused to quit, is leading a probe into Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and associates and has also indicted a Turkish state-owned firm involved in an Iran sanctions-busting case which Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has raised with Trump.
Scores of former Justice Department officials had already called for Barr to quit over a series of interventions that appear specifically designed to benefit Trump politically. Berman’s refusal to go quietly meanwhile set off a new crisis and governmental showdown for an already reeling administration that is struggling to cope with a pandemic, a consequent economic crisis and a national reckoning on race.
The President had been thinking of removing Berman for two years and believes that the investigation into Giuliani is an attempt to damage him politically, two sources told CNN’s Kevin Liptak. But Friday night’s dramatic events stoke fresh intrigue of exactly why Barr and Trump are suddenly so keen to oust Berman – a Trump donor who was installed by the Trump administration in 2018 – less than five months before the election.
Berman, before walking into his office in downtown New York Saturday morning, told reporters, “I issued a statement last night, I have nothing to add to that this morning. I’m just here to do my job.”
Fundamentally, the episode reveals the extent to which a President with authoritarian impulses, who has worked constantly to challenge the justice system’s independence and sought to force it to act in his own personal interests, is prepared to act with impunity in the wake of his Senate acquittal by fellow Republicans on impeachment charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
In recent weeks, Barr has ordered the clearing of protesters from Washington’s Lafayette Square minutes before the President’s controversial photo-op at a church. His department ditched the prosecution of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn – who twice admitted lying to the FBI – and attempted to reduce the sentencing recommendation for political fixer Roger Stone, another prominent Trump associate. One year ago, Barr may have saved Trump’s presidency by shaping an impression of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report in a way that was favorable to Trump – before anyone could read the report.
The President has meanwhile gutted top leadership of the FBI and the Justice Department in a way that suggests political motivation. More recently he has threatened to send regular troops into the streets to confront anti-racism demonstrations. And he has conducted a purge against inspectors general who are independent watchdog officials in government departments.
The Berman controversy came at the moment when the President kicks his 2020 reelection campaign into high gear with a rally Saturday night in Oklahoma before a big crowd that defies Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on stemming the pandemic.
A ‘Friday Night Massacre’?
Extraordinary events over the fate of Berman were the latest disturbing echo of former Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” when the then-President ordered his attorney general to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox at the height of the Watergate scandal.
Late on Friday evening – the traditional dumping ground for controversial news stories – Barr issued a press release announcing Berman’s sudden resignation that said that he would be replaced by Jay Clayton, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who has never served as a prosecutor.
On its own, Barr’s move was shocking since the Southern District of New York is one of the most prestigious and independent prosecutorial perches and typically handles highly sensitive financial, politically sensitive and terrorism cases.
The fact that SDNY also investigated and convicted the President’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen and is currently looking into Giuliani’s financial and business affairs immediately raised the suspicion of conflicts of interests and political interference as well as new scrutiny over Barr’s conduct and motivations. Adding to the intrigue is that Giuliani was the top federal prosecutor in New York during the 1980s.
The New York federal prosecutor’s office is also working on a number of cases to which it was referred by Mueller when he wrapped up his investigation into whether the Trump campaign knowingly cooperated with Russia’s election interference operation. It named the President as “Individual-1” in its case against Cohen saying he directed campaign finance offenses related to the paying of hush money to several women who said they had affairs with Trump.
The attempted firing of Berman ignited another conflagration in Washington with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, immediately announcing a hearing for Wednesday and inviting Berman to testify.
“America is right to expect the worst of Bill Barr, who has repeatedly interfered in criminal investigations on Trump’s behalf,” Nadler said in a statement.
CNN legal analyst Laura Coates said late Friday that if it looked as though Barr was facilitating actions that would “undermine the expedience … or going forward of any cases it adds another log to the fire for people burning about their problems with this attorney general and his inability to boost or really contribute to morale and career prosecutors’ ability to do their job.”
Berman refuses to go
An already massive confrontation exploded further when Berman, in a stunning move, issued his own late-night statement rebuking Barr over his decision to oust him and refusing to go, arguing that since he was technically appointed by a panel of judges on an acting basis in 2018, Barr has no power to force him out and that he would continue to serve.
“I learned in a press release from the Attorney General tonight that I was ‘stepping down’ as United States Attorney. I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position, to which I was appointed by the Judges of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York,” Berman said.
“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 said. The chances of a new US Attorney for the Southern District of New York being confirmed much before the election seem slim and there is the possibility of legal battles over Berman’s tenure.
CNN legal analyst Paul Callan said: “I think the President is going to have a great deal of difficulty in forcing Mr. Berman out of office because he came in under strange circumstances.”
Berman’s reference to those investigations immediately posed the question of whether he was speaking specifically about the general work of his department or to any cases that might interest Barr and Trump specifically.
His defiance left next steps unclear but at the very least spoke to the remarkable chaos unleashed in the Justice Department under Trump which has intensified ever since Barr took over.
CNN has reported rising tensions between Washington and Berman’s office, including over some cases including the indictment of Turkish bank Halkbank. In his new book, former national security adviser John Bolton said that Trump told the Turkish strongman he would take “care of things” when he had replaced the prosecutors in New York with his own people. The Justice Department and Berman did, however, bring a case against the Turkish bank in October 2019.
The administration discussed replacing Berman with Ed O’Callaghan, a senior official last fall but the move was put on hold after prosecutor’s indicted Guiliani’s associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, sources said.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Erica Orden, Evan Perez, Kara Scannell and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.