Fired US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said he did not believe President Donald Trump had the authority to remove him, but he agreed to step aside once his deputy was named acting US attorney for the Southern District of New York, Berman told a congressional committee last week.
The House Judiciary Committee released a transcript of Berman’s two-hour closed-door interview, in which the former Manhattan federal prosecutor spoke about his conversations with Attorney General William Barr surrounding his dismissal – but would not discuss any specific cases or why he thought Barr pushed to replace him.
“Once I was confident that the investigations could go on unimpeded under (the) deputy US attorney, who would now be acting US attorney, Audrey Strauss, I stepped away,” Berman told the committee. “This was never a fight about me or for me or for me to keep my position. My sole goal was to ensure that the investigations would not be impeded.”
Berman said he did not know why Barr was trying to remove him, but argued that Barr’s actions raised “serious concerns” and would have been disruptive to the office and potentially resulted in the resignation of prosecutors under him.
“I don’t know what the Attorney General’s motives were, but the irregular and unexplained actions by the Attorney General raised serious concerns for me. In addition, the imposition of an acting United States attorney from outside of the office, as I explained, would necessarily delay and disrupt the ongoing investigations.”
Berman’s closed-door testimony comes ahead of the House Judiciary Committee’s public hearing with Barr later this month. Democrats have charged that Berman’s firing is only the latest case where Barr politicized the Justice Department by taking actions to benefit Trump. The Southern District of New York has investigated a number of Trump’s associates, though Republicans pointed out that Barr did not raise any specific cases with Berman during their conversation last month when Barr asked Berman to resign.
Berman declined to answer numerous questions from both sides, including about any specific cases or events beyond his firing last month.
In his opening statement, which was reported last week, Berman said Barr’s initial plan to replace him with New Jersey US Attorney Craig Carpenito as acting US attorney in Manhattan was “unprecedented, unnecessary and unexplained.” Berman was fired after initially publicly refusing Barr’s request for him to resign.
Berman, as a court-appointed US attorney, argued that Barr – and Trump – could not fire him, and he spoke to outside attorneys after his initial conversation with Barr. Republican staffers questioned that position, pressing him on a Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel opinion and past court cases, Berman argued they did not have binding authority over SDNY.
“Certainly it’s not binding authority on the Southern District of New York. And I think those two cases you cited were wrongly decided,” Berman said.
Berman said he was prepared to litigate the matter if Barr had tried to appoint an outside official to lead the office.
“Did anyone tell you that you had a great likelihood of success on the merits if you were to litigate?” asked Steve Castor, an attorney for Republicans on the committee.
“I liked my chances,” Berman responded.