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Late-night chaos at DOJ as U.S. attorney insists he's not leaving


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Good for Geoffry Berman!


Attorney General William Barr said Geoffrey Berman was stepping down as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. But Berman hit back.


House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler is inviting Manhattan-based U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman to testify next week, following Attorney General William Barr‘s effort to fire him late Friday.

“America is right to expect the worst of Bill Barr, who has repeatedly interfered in criminal investigations on Trump’s behalf,” Nadler said shortly before midnight Friday. “We have a hearing on this topic on Wednesday. We welcome Mr. Berman’s testimony and will invite him to testify.”

Nadler’s offer followed a late-night eruption inside the Justice Department, exposing a fissure between Barr and prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York — an office that has handled sensitive cases involving Trump’s business interests and close associates.

Barr announced abruptly that Berman would be stepping down as head of the office, a post he was appointed to by federal judges following a lengthy vacancy.

“I thank Geoffrey Berman, who is stepping down after two-and-a-half years of service as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York,” Barr said in a statement at around 9:30 p.m. “With tenacity and savvy, Geoff has done an excellent job leading one of our nation’s most significant U.S. Attorney’s Offices, achieving many successes on consequential civil and criminal matters.”

Trump then announced his intent to nominate Jay Clayton, head of the Securities and Exchange Commission to succeed him. And Barr said Craig Carpentino, New Jersey’s U.S. attorney, would take over temporarily for Berman while Clayton’s nomination was pending. That would be a departure from past practice, Justice Department veterans said, noting that the usual procedure would be for a career prosecutor to assume the acting U.S. attorney role.

But the unusual personnel moves quickly gave way to a full-blown crisis when Berman said he only learned of the personnel moves from Barr’s press release and had no intention of stepping down. Rather, noting that he was appointed by judges, Berman said he intended to stay until a permanent successor is confirmed.

Until then, Berman said, his office would pursue its investigations "without delay or interruption."

The moves set off alarms among legal experts and lawmakers. “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?“ wondered Preet Bharara, who held the SDNY post under Barack Obama and expected to retain it under Trump, though he was ultimately removed at the start of Trump’s term.

But legal experts differed over whether Berman could indeed remain in his post until Clayton or another successor is confirmed. A 1979 opinion by the Office of Legal Counsel determined that U.S. attorneys could be removed by the president even if they were appointed by a court.

The fate of Clayton's nomination is also uncertain. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, said Saturday he had not heard from the Trump administration about its plans to replace Berman but praised Clayton as "a fine man and accomplished lawyer."

However, Graham (R-S.C.) indicated he would defer to the Senate's "blue slip" tradition, in which individual senators may effectively block the nomination of someone who hails from their home state. That would empower Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to stop Clayton from advancing through the Judiciary Committee — and Schumer has already indicated he thinks Clayton should withdraw from consideration.

“Forty seven years ago, Elliott Richardson had the courage to say no to a gross abuse of presidential power," Schumer said Saturday, invoking the Nixon-era prosecutor. "Jay Clayton has a similar choice today: He can allow himself to be used in the brazen Trump-Barr scheme to interfere in investigations by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, or he can stand up to this corruption, withdraw his name from consideration, and save his own reputation from overnight ruin."

Regardless of what happens with Clayton's nomination, however, it's Carpentino — Trump's designee to lead the SDNY office until Clayton's confirmation — who would hold the greatest sway over the sensitive investigations that Berman has been leading.

Trump has long sought to replace Berman, despite the U.S. attorney having donated thousands of dollars to his campaign in 2016.

According to a forthcoming memoir by former national security adviser John Bolton, the president promised to remove prosecutors at the Southern District, whom he viewed as "Obama people," with Trump loyalists.

Trump made the commitment during a summer 2019 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had asked the U.S. president to lean on the Justice Department to drop its prosecution of Halkbank, a Turkish bank accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.

"Of course, this was all nonsense," Bolton wrote, "since the prosecutors were career Justice Department employees, who would have proceeded the same way if the Halkbank investigation started in the eighth year of Trump's presidency rather than the eighth year of Obama's."

Halkbank, which stands accused of laundering billions for the sanctioned Iranian regime, pleaded not guilty in March following a federal indictment. The judge in that case, the Southern District’s Richard Berman, has scheduled a conference for June 30.

Nadler’s committee was already slated to hear Wednesday from two DOJ officials it’s describing as “whistleblowers” to testify about alleged political interference by Barr at the Justice Department to serve Trump’s personal interest. One, Aaron Zelensky, was a prosecutor in the case of longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, who withdrew from the case after Barr intervened to seek a lighter sentence. The other, John Elias, was a top antitrust official when the administration attempted to intervene in a merger between AT&T and Time Warner.

Nadler has tried unsuccessfully for more than a year to obtain testimony from Barr himself, an effort that imploded for the third time earlier this month. Nadler indicated that he had no intention of subpoenaing the attorney general because it would lead to a lengthy court fight, but since then Democrats have grown increasingly furious over Barr’s involvement in the case of former Trump adviser Michael Flynn, the violent dispersal of peaceful protesters outside the White House on June 1 and now his effort to upend the leadership of the SDNY office.



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