Attorney General William Barr announced late Friday evening that he had nominated a Trump appointee to replace the Manhattan U.S. Attorney who had investigated and convicted some of President Donald Trump’s closest associates. It was a shocking announcement even to the prosecutor he intended to replace, Geoffrey Berman.
“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. “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.”
That came about an hour after Barr’s surprise announcement at 10 p.m. on Friday that Jay Clayton, appointed by Trump as chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2017, would be nominated as Berman’s replacement as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
The move stunned officials and trial attorneys inside Main Justice, as the Department’s Washington, D.C. headquarters is known. Two individuals in the Department’s Civil Division confirmed to The Daily Beast that Berman had been offered and declined the chance to run the division, where assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt had abruptly announced his departure this week, but declined. Barr reportedly then asked for Berman’s resignation and, when Berman didn’t offer it, the attorney general simply announced it.
One other official said the news of Berman’s apparent ouster came as a shock, as did the decision to nominate Clayton, who has no prosecutorial experience.
On Saturday afternoon, Barr attempted to end the drama—but appeared to add to the confusion. “Because you have declared that you have no intention of resigning,” Barr wrote to Berman, “I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so.”
Trump, however, declined to confirm that. Speaking to reporters on Saturday afternoon, he said he was “not involved” in the decision to fire or retain Berman. The White House refused to answer any questions on the subject.
For nearly half of his time in office, Trump has groused about SDNY personnel and the need for a house-cleaning, including sometimes by specifically calling out Berman by name. A source with direct knowledge of the matter told The Daily Beast that they were present at a dinner with the president last year when Trump briefly discussed Berman, calling him “corrupt.”
However, securities law professor J.W. Verret, who briefly advised the Trump pre-transition team in 2016, called Clayton a “stand up guy” who would probably decline to take the job after Berman’s statement. “I suspect he was sandbagged by the administration,” he tweeted. “He will take his hat right out of the ring after this.”
Hours before, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) called on Clayton to withdraw his name from consideration and, separately, Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsay Graham said that he would follow the blue slip tradition that would give New York’s Senators, Schumer and fellow Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, an effective veto over Clayton or any other nominee Trump might name to replace Berman.
Berman was initially named interim SDNY U.S. Attorney by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018. After the 120 days allowed for that appointment ran out, without Trump sending Berman’s nomination to the Senate for their advice and consent, a panel of federal district court judges wrote a court order, still in effect, naming Berman to the role—in a term that expires only when the Senate has given its consent to the president’s nominee. Berman’s statement Friday night pointedly notes this, suggesting that Barr and Trump may not have the authority to remove him given the separation of powers issues doing so would raise.
Just before midnight on Friday, House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler, one of the architects of Trump’s impeachment case, wrote that “America is right to expect the worst of Bill Barr, who has repeatedly interfered in criminal investigations on Trump’s behalf. We have a hearing on this topic on Wednesday. We welcome Mr. Berman’s testimony and will invite him to testify.”
A Democratic aide said late Saturday morning that there had been no further update from Nadler. Barr, the aide said, has not given any indication that he’s willing to testify though he had previously said he would pre-pandemic. Two other aides said that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told Nadler not to subpoena Barr to testify.
Berman was appointed in 2018 after his predecessor, Preet Bharara, an Obama appointee, was fired by Trump after refusing to step down. Bharara’s No. 2, Joon Kim, then served as the acting U.S. Attorney—the usual protocol to maintain continuity in ongoing cases.
Notably, Barr said Friday that he would be moving New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney to New York to replace Berman in an acting role and run the office often nicknamed the “Sovereign District” for its independence and sweeping authority given how much of the nation’s financial life flows through Manhattan. Barr then reversed himself on Saturday, saying the “Deputy United States Attorney” would fill the role in the interim.
“This is highly irregular,” former Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich noted on Twitter. “Why the rush to get Geoff Berman out the door and cause disarray in three different offices at once?”
Former White House counsel and Watergate whistleblower John Dean said the move “reeks of putting the fix in” to protect Trump, Giuliani and the wider Trump orbit.
Berman was appointed more than a year after Bharara had been fired. Under Berman, the SDNY carried out numerous investigations and prosecutions that impinged on Trumpworld—including the indictment of the president’s personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, though Berman recused himself from that case.
Bharara took umbrage on Friday to Barr’s attempt to boot Berman, asking: “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?”
While Berman was initially viewed with some suspicion as a Trump donor and former partner of Rudy Giuliani’s at the firm of Greenberg Traurig, he won over many skeptics inside and outside the office after he took the job and began pursuing presidential allies.
“Geoff has exceeded everybody’s expectations,” Hadassa Waxman, a Democrat who worked under Bharara, told the Associated Press last year. “From Day One, he went in there and said, ‘This is going to be the Southern District. There’s not going to be any change. I’m going to lead the office with the same integrity, commitment to fairness.’”
SDNY filed charges against financier and convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein before his jailhouse death, and fired shots across the bow at the United Kingdom’s Prince Andrew for his alleged involvement with the accused sex trafficker.
In February 2019, Berman’s prosecutors subpoenaed the Trump inaugural committee, seeking information on everything from vendors to donors—including a contributor named Imaad Zuberi, who was eventually charged with obstructing the SDNY probe.
In its investigation of hush money paid by Trump’s campaign to cover up the president’s extramarital affairs with Stormy Daniels and other women, the SDNY secured a conviction of Cohen on charges of tax evasion, making false statements to a federally insured bank, and campaign finance violations. He was sentenced to three years in prison but later released as a result of preventative measures against the new coronavirus.
The case against Cohen produced a non-prosecution agreement against American Media, Inc., parent company of the National Enquirer, which made the payments on behalf of Cohen to suppress the stories, a practice known as “catch and kill.” Berman later looked into Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ claim that AMI tried to blackmail Bezos about his extramarital affair.
Other Trump World associates found themselves in the sights of Berman’s office. SDNY brought charges against Natalya Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who shopped dirt on Hillary Clinton to the Trump campaign, in a tangentially related case. Berman also indicted Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, associates of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who were accused of pumping foreign money into efforts to support Trump—a probe that also led prosecutors to scrutinize Giuliani’s finances.
Former National Security Adviser John Bolton claims in his forthcoming book, The Room Where It Happened, that Trump told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that the SDNY investigation into Turkish bank Halkbank would disappear once all the “Obama people” were “replaced by his people.”
In October, the SDNY charged Halkbank with six counts including fraud and money-laundering for an alleged multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.
That case emerged out of the office’s successful prosecution for sanctions-busting of Reza Zarrab, a dual citizen of Turkey and Iran with close ties to Erdoğan. Zarrab hired Giuliani, himself a former U.S. Attorney for the SDNY, and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, both political allies of Trump, for his legal team.
The pair didn’t contribute to his legal defense, but instead met secretly in Istanbul with Erdoğan to try and work out what another of Zarrab’s lawyers later described in court as an extra-judicial “diplomatic solution” involving a prisoner exchange between the two countries.
That deal never came through, and Zarrab—who was charged on the watch of Bharara and convicted when Kim led the SDNY—eventually cooperated with the office in its successful case against Halkbank’s Mehmet Hakan Atilla, which in turn led to the case against the bank the SDNY is pursuing now under Berman’s watch.
“Berman’s statement implies that there was a connection between the attempt to push him out and the ‘delay or interruption’ of SDNY investigations. Congress needs to subpoena Berman to testify and get to the bottom of this,” former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti told The Daily Beast.
—Tracy Connor contributed to this report.