On Saturday, the Trump administration removed the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) Geoffrey Berman, from office according to a letter written to Berman by Attorney General William Barr.
Barr’s announcement came after his initial news release on Friday which stated that Berman would be “stepping down” to be replaced by the current Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Jay Clayton. Barr further stated that the US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, would serve as Berman’s interim replacement while the Senate considered Clayton’s nomination.
Two hours after Barr’s news release, Berman released his own statement on Friday denying Barr’s assertion.
“I learned in a news 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.
“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.”
In his letter announcing Berman’s removal from office, Barr wrote, “With your statement of last night, you have chosen public spectacle over public service. 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 further noted that Berman’s deputy, Audrey Strauss would serve as Acting US Attorney for SDNY.
Speaking to reporters at the campaign rally in Tulsa, President Donald Trump denied involvement in the decision. “That’s his [Attorney General William Barr] department, not my department. But we have a very capable attorney general, so that’s really up to him. I’m not involved.”
Although Barr gave no reason for Berman’s dismissal, over the years Berman’s office has prosecuted some of Trump’s closest allies.
In 2018, Berman’s office led the prosecution and arrest of Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen. Cohen pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws in 2016 to illegally pay two women from publicly speaking about their affair with Trump.
Berman’s office is also currently leading two politically sensitive investigations. One against Hallbank, a state-owned Turkish bank as well as Trump’s current personal lawyer, Rudolf Guiliani.
SDNY prosecutors began investigations into Guiliani in 2019 for lobbying Ukrainian entities to assist Trump in his investigations against Democrats, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
The investigation against Guiliani came after SDNY prosecutors issued a grand jury indictment against two of Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman for allegedly assisting Guiliani in Trump’s Ukraine dealings.
Parnas and Fruman have also been accused of violating campaign finance laws by setting up a shell company to hide foreign donations to a super PAC dedicated toward Trump’s reelection.
In 2019, SDNY prosecutors also filed fraud and money laundering charges against the state-owned Turkish bank, Hallbank for violating US sanctions against Iran. This comes after Trump told Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2018 that he would handle the investigation, according to John Bolton’s new memoir. Before the criminal charges were filed against the bank, Barr was overseeing an effort to reach a settlement with Hallbank.
According to Bolton’s memoir, Trump had also told Erdogan that the “the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people” and Erdogan’s request to have the investigation against Hallbank dropped would be “fixed when they were replaced by his people.”
Addressing the dynamic between the Trump administration and SDNY, David Massey, a defense lawyer for SDNY said, “While there have always been turf battles between the Southern District and the Justice Department in Washington, and occasionally sharp elbows, to take someone out suddenly while they’re investigating the president’s lawyer, it is just unprecedented in modern times.”
Former SDNY attorney Elie Honig stated that the Trump administration’s decision represents a “political takeover” of the “historically independent” SDNY.
“When you look at the timing of this – the fact that it was announced late on a Friday night, the fact that the attorney general immediately was caught in a misleading statement when he said the U.S. attorney is stepping down … and you look at all the important pending cases in the SDNY right now, the only logical conclusion to me is that this is a political move.”
On Saturday, the Head of House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, stated that the committee would investigate Berman’s dismissal as part of the committee’s larger inquiry into alleged political interference at the Justice Department.
“The whole thing smacks of corruption and incompetence,” Mr. Nadler stated.
On Saturday, Bernan released his own statement in acceptance of the Trump administration’s decision adding that Strauss’ leadership would ensure that the independence of SDNY is maintained.
“In light of Attorney General Barr’s decision to respect the normal operation of law” in having Strauss become Acting US Attorney of SDNY, Berman stated that he would be leaving office “effective immediately.”
“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve as this District’s US attorney and a custodian of its proud legacy, but I could leave the district in no better hands than Audrey’s. … I know that under her leadership, this office’s unparalleled AUSAs [Assistant United States Attorneys], investigators, paralegals, and staff will continue to safeguard the Southern District’s enduring tradition of integrity and independence.”
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