Editor’s Note: Jennifer Rodgers is a former federal prosecutor, the former executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School, and a CNN legal analyst. Elie Honig, a former federal and state prosecutor, is a CNN legal analyst and a Rutgers University scholar. Both have worked in the US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump have messed with the wrong prosecutors. The attempt to decapitate the Southern District of New York by removing US Attorney Geoffrey Berman is nothing less than a political assault on a fiercely independent office that poses a genuine threat to powerful interests arrayed around the President.
Barr has, once again, injected partisan politics into the Justice Department to protect Trump. But they won’t succeed. We are betting that the SDNY and its work will overcome and outlast the machinations of Barr and the Trump administration.
Barr’s late Friday night announcement that Berman would be “stepping down” backfired in spectacular fashion. Berman immediately called out Barr’s mendacity, stating plainly: “I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning.”
It’s bad enough that Barr tried to bury this news by announcing it late on a Friday night; it’s even worse that he left himself open to immediate exposure for flatly lying to the public. (That Barr might fudge the truth is, sadly, nothing new. Just a few hours before Barr’s announcement, a Republican-appointed federal judge — who had previously called out Barr’s “lack of candor” as part of a “calculated attempt” to protect Trump — released newly unredacted portions of the Mueller report that show Trump might have lied to Mueller during the investigation.)
The motivation behind Barr’s aggressive move seems clear: As with this administration’s other Friday night massacres, the goal was to scuttle investigations into the President and his close associates for their allegedly illegal and otherwise improper conduct. Berman reportedly was offered another position at the Justice Department outside of SDNY, so he cannot have been fired “for cause.”
And Barr took the nearly unprecedented and nonsensical step of announcing the appointment of a different district’s US Attorney to step in and run not just his own office but also the SDNY as acting US Attorney until a successor to Berman is confirmed by the Senate, instead of allowing the SDNY deputy US Attorney — Audrey Strauss, an impeccably credentialed, highly capable, and very experienced prosecutor — to do so.