Trump, Bill Barr Make Most Brazen Move Yet With Late-Night Sacking Of Geoffrey Berman

(Updates with Barr response, Berman exit)

“Trump then told Recep Tayyip Erdogan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people”, John Bolton writes, in the former national security adviser’s hotly contested memoir that appears poised for release despite the Trump administration’s increasingly desperate attempts to keep it from the public ahead of the election.

They “were Obama people”, Bolton recounts, describing what Trump told the Turkish president about the Southern District (SDNY). That was a “problem” and it would be rectified “when they were replaced by his people”, Trump alleged told Erdogan.

That particular exchange referenced Erdogan’s long-running quest to have the US drop charges against state-owned Halkbank, which was accused of violating US sanctions on Iran. That story is quite the tale, and it has featured heavily in these pages from time to time.

The Halkbank case was handled by the Southern District. Erdogan once told Joe Biden that Preet Bharara, then the US attorney for the SDNY was “a Gulenist tool”, a reference to Fethullah Gulen, a US-based cleric who Erdogan blames for the failed 2016 coup in his country.

Michael Flynn once wrote an “opinion” piece for The Hill making all manner of allegations against Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. The Hill was eventually forced to add a disclaimer under the post to account for what the country would learn about Flynn’s ties to Turkey.

During the Obama administration, Erdogan demanded that Biden fire Bharara. Of course, Bharara was ultimately fired — only not by Biden. But rather by Donald Trump.

Why bring this up again? Well, because late Friday, Bill Barr announced that Bharara’s successor, Geoffrey Berman, was “stepping down”. Barr did not provide additional details.

There’s just one problem: Berman refused to step down.

“I learned in a press release from the Attorney General tonight that I was ‘stepping down’ as United States Attorney”, Berman said in a statement, just before midnight. “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”.

Barr, irritated, eventually sent Berman a letter confirming that he had, in fact, been fired by Trump.

“I was surprised and quite disappointed by the press statement you released last night”, Barr told Berman on Saturday. “To the extent that your statement reflects a misunderstanding concerning how you may be displaced, it is well-established that a court-appointed US Attorney is subject to removal by the President”.

Early Saturday evening, Berman said he’s leaving his position immediately now that Barr has decided to allow his deputy to step in.

Of course, prosecuting Turkish banks for evading sanctions isn’t the only thing the SDNY does. They handle many of the country’s most high-profile cases, including all manner of investigations into Trump’s allies.

It was the SDNY who prosecuted Michael Cohen. The office was also behind the indictment of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the two Rudy Giuliani associates who spearheaded the Ukraine scandal which led to Trump’s impeachment. Last year, the SDNY began an investigation into Giuliani himself to determine if his involvement in Ukraine ran afoul of lobbying laws.

Giuliani, through his attorney, told The New York Times he had nothing to do with Barr’s move against Berman who, if the administration has its way, will be replaced by SEC chair Jay Clayton. As far as I can tell, Clayton has never worked as a prosector.

Barr attempted to install Craig Carpenito, the US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, in an acting capacity until the Senate can confirm Clayton, which could take a considerable amount of time, especially if Democrats decide this deserves more scrutiny, which they surely will.

“Bill Barr… has repeatedly interfered in criminal investigations on Trump’s behalf”, House Judiciary chair Jerry Nadler said. “We have a hearing on this topic on Wednesday [and] we welcome Mr. Berman’s testimony and will invite him to testify”, Nadler added.

Clayton’s 2017 confirmation as SEC chair was no walk in the park, and this is likely to be an even more arduous process, assuming it even makes it that far.

Lindsey Graham suggested he isn’t inclined to move ahead with the nomination without the consent of Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, in keeping with Judiciary committee tradition of securing the blessing of home-state lawmakers.

“This late Friday night dismissal reeks of potential corruption”, Schumer said, in a statement. “What is angering President Trump? A previous action by this US Attorney or one that is ongoing?”

The answer is likely “both”. It was during the charging phase of Cohen’s case that SDNY prosecutors said he acted on behalf of “Individual 1”, which became an internet meme (it was painfully obvious that “Individual 1” was Trump).

Berman’s office effectively took the baton from Robert Mueller when the special counsel probe wound down, and led an investigation into Trump’s inaugural committee.

“Barr asked Berman to resign, but he refused, so Barr moved to fire him”, the Times writes, citing a person familiar with the matter “Trump had been discussing removing Berman for some time with a small group of advisers”, the same source said. The Times notes the obvious: “Trump has been upset with Berman ever since the Manhattan prosecutor’s office pursued [the] case against Cohen”.

This comes on the heels of Trump’s move to dismiss a procession of inspectors general, including Steve Linick, who was investigating Mike Pompeo. Linick was also sacked on a Friday night. Before that, the president removed intelligence community IG Michael Atkinson (who originally acknowledged the whistleblower complaint at the heart of last year’s impeachment inquiry) and Pentagon watchdog Glenn Fine (who was set to oversee implementation of the $2 trillion virus relief package). He also moved to oust Health and Human Services IG Christi Grimm, who the president charged with producing what he called a “fake dossier” on shortages at hospitals. (You can read that “dossier” and decide how “fake” it is was yourself here.)

In their coverage, the Times provides the following useful recap of Berman’s installation at the head of America’s foremost prosecutor’s office:

The United States attorney’s office in Manhattan is perhaps the most famous federal prosecutor’s post in the country. The office, through Democratic and Republican administrations, has long prized a tradition of independence from the Justice Department and Washington. It has even been nicknamed the “Sovereign District of New York.”

Mr. Berman worked there in the 1990s as a prosecutor, but he took over the office under unusual circumstances.

A Republican who contributed to the president’s campaign and worked at the same law firm as Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Berman was never formally nominated for the position by Mr. Trump or confirmed by the Senate, as is normal protocol for United States attorneys.

In 2018, the attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, appointed Mr. Berman as interim United States attorney in Manhattan.

But Mr. Trump never formally sent Mr. Berman’s nomination to the Senate. After 120 days, his formal appointment to the post was made by the judges of the United States District Court.

Bloomberg adds that “in his ongoing investigation into the late Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes and those who enabled his behavior, Berman this month publicly refuted a statement from Prince Andrew’s UK lawyers that he has repeatedly sought to talk to American investigators”. That, Bloomberg goes on to note, precipitated “an extraordinary showdown [when] Berman issued his own statement that Andrew has done nothing of the kind”.

To be clear, this is a big deal. Trump and Barr have crossed quite a few lines over the past 16 or so months, and while you could argue this isn’t the most brazen act, it’s right up there.

Dan Goldman, former federal prosecutor from the US attorney’s office in Manhattan, called this “not typical”. “When SDNY USA’s step down (or are fired in Preet’s case), their deputy takes over”, he tweeted. “Going to DNJ for the acting USA is a sign that Trump/Barr did not want anyone at SDNY running the office – likely because there was a serious disagreement”.

And speaking of Preet, he had a simple question: “Why does a president get rid of his own hand-picked US Attorney in SDNY on a Friday night, less than 5 months before the election?”


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13 thoughts on “Trump, Bill Barr Make Most Brazen Move Yet With Late-Night Sacking Of Geoffrey Berman

        1. Let’s keep this on topic. This article is about the SDNY and the history of its involvement in a variety of investigations into allies of the president.

          I do not want to see the comments devolve into a debate about flaming Wendy’s restaurants.

          As regular readers are aware, I ask that comments on articles be directly related to the article itself. The reason I insist on that is so that casual readers (i.e., folks who happen on this site merely because they were searching for information on a specific story), do not scroll down and find themselves subjected to a totally unrelated stream of comments.

          There are more than enough articles on Heisenberg Report where you can weigh in on looting and protests. This post isn’t one of them.

          1. I should have been more specific. I was lamenting the sacking of a prosecutor for simply doing his job. I was not intending to reference the looting.

          2. I wasn’t responding to anyone in particular — just cutting it off before it goes where it looks like it was going.

  1. My question here is how Trump/Barr can do this. Will they send in armed US Marshalls, make some kind of deal, or just back down? This could be fun to watch, especially if Tulsa turns messy.

  2. A lot of Americans think of people like Patrick Henry and Paul Revere when they think of patriots. I think the people who stand up to Trump and his gang of lowlife cohorts and try to preserve our justice system will be just as deserving of the title.

  3. Berman agreed to step down when it was decided his highly regarded #2, Audrey Strauss, would take over as interim leader.

  4. the way US key appointments are changes are arbitrarily changed in the final months leading up to the US elections…

    smells of rigging and cronyism
    In the eyes of the international community, looks like a dismantling of the integrity of the American system of checks and balances. It is outright worrying

    let’s hope enough Americans exercise their right to vote and nip this in the bud.. because i am not sure there will be any system integrity left if Trump is allowed to serve another 4 years ( which could very plausible end up as 4+4+4+4 in the hands of a skillful authoritarian )

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