Southern District U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman resigned, effective immediately, early Saturday evening, leaving the so-called Sovereign District of New York in trusted hands and putting an end to an absurd 20 hours that began when Attorney General William Barr announced on Friday night Berman was resigning, and Berman said he was not, and Barr then announced on Saturday afternoon that Trump had fired Berman, only for Trump to say that he had not.
A law-enforcement source with knowledge of the situation inside the Southern District of New York described to the Beast on Saturday morning a chaotic situation there beginning with Barr’s surprise Friday night announcement that U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman was resigning.
The person said that prosecutors and office leaders had been blindsided by Barr’s announcement, and his unusual plan for new outside leadership, and concerned about what all of that could mean for their cases going forward.
“This is one of those things where the amount of speculation outstrips the amount of knowledge by so much,” said the person. “It’s like dealing with defendants: ‘what’s the reason they did this?’ You’re trying to analyze it rationally and then you realize it’s not necessarily rational.”
“You literally have two popes. This is a schism,” the person continued, speaking after Berman had responded to Barr’s initial announcement.
“It’s one of those situations where you have a statute that for good reason is never used and never tested. There’s a court order on the docket in SDNY naming Berman the U.S. Attorney. I mean, they’re called orders for a reason. Until it’s removed from the docket, the court will enforce it.”
On Saturday afternoon, Barr attempted to end the drama he blamed Berman for creating, accusing him in a second letter of putting “public spectacle ahead of public service.” But the attorney general’s move only added to the confusion. “Because you have declared that you have no intention of resigning,” Barr wrote to Berman on Saturday afternoon, “I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so.”
But Trump, speaking to reporters on Saturday afternoon, said he was “not involved” in the decision to fire or retain Berman. The White House declined to answer any questions on the subject.
Barr had broken with Justice’s usual procedures by announcing in his Friday letter that District of New Jersey U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito would cross the Hudson and serve as the acting SDNY U.S. Attorney “effective July 3,” rather than elevating a member of the current leadership to ensure the continuity of cases—a distressing sign given how many of the office’s cases involve associates of the president.
On Saturday, Barr reversed himself, without mentioning Clayton or Carpenito, writing that “the Deputy United States Attorney, Audrey Strauss, will become the Acting United States Attorney [for SDNY], and I anticipate that she will serve in that capacity until a permanent successor is in place.”
Strauss is highly respected within the office, and Berman finally brought the drama that Barr had sparked to an end early Saturday evening, writing that “In light of Attorney General Barr’s decision to respect the normal operation of law and have Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss become Acting U.S. Attorney, I will be leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, effective immediately. It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve as this District’s U.S. Attorney and a custodian of its proud legacy, but I could leave the District in no better hands than Audrey’s. She is the smartest, most principled, and effective lawyer with whom I have ever had the privilege of working.”
As The Daily Beast previously reported, Barr’s initial move against Berman 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 abruptly announced his departure earlier this week, but declined.
Barr reportedly then asked for Berman’s resignation in a face-to-face meeting in New York and, when Berman didn’t offer it, Barr simply announced it, and that Trump would nominate SEC Chair Jay Clayton, who has no prosecutorial experience, as his replacement.
“Berman’s rich—they found a guy who doesn’t need anything from them,” said the person with knowledge of the situation inside SDNY. “Berman wouldn’t take that job? Sometimes the most integrity comes out of the unlikeliest of places. Who’d have thought that the son of a Jersey real estate developer who worked with Charlie Kushner, someone who never did a case of his own, would turn out to be the guy who holds the line?”
For nearly half of his time in office, Trump—who abruptly fired Berman’s predecessor, Preet Bharara, in 2017—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.”
In his initial response on Friday, posted on the Southern District's page on the Justice Department's website, Berman sad he intended to remain on the job, and suggesting that Barr lacked the power to remove him since he was finally placed there by a panel of federal judges after Trump failed to submit a nominee for senate advice and consent 120 days after he’d been placed there temporarily by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The judges’ order, still in effect, says that Berman’s term expires only when the senate approves the president’s nominee for the role.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) announced Friday night that Berman was invited to testify in an oversight hearing next week. But according to two individuals with knowledge of the situation on Saturday morning, there’s been no communication from Nadler to the rest of the committee about any such testimony.
In a statement Saturday afternoon, before Berman resigned, Nadler said that “the whole thing smacks of corruption and incompetence, which is what we have come to expect from this President and his Attorney General,” and that the committee will immediately open an investigation into this incident, as part of our broader investigation into Barr’s unacceptable politicization of the Department of Justice."
As part of that broader investigation, two whistleblowers will testify on Wednesday, but another Democrat on the committee would only say on Saturday evening that “we are working through different options right now” for getting Berman himself to testify.
And, one of those sources said, there’s little indication on Nadler’s part that he will take more aggressive steps to get Barr in front of the committee for questioning. Barr was set to testify in March but that hearing was delayed because of the pandemic. Since then, members have advocated that the committee make a renewed effort to question the attorney general in an open setting. But one individual said it’s unlikely Nadler will issue subpoenas for Barr because the chairman is constrained by members of the Democratic leadership.
Saturday morning, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the attempt to oust Berman “reeks of potential corruption of the legal process” and called on Clayton to withdraw his name from consideration. Separately, Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsay Graham said that he would follow the blue slip tradition that gives New York’s Senators, Schumer and fellow Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, an effective veto over any other nominee Trump might offer.
Justice Department guidelines require any election-related charges to be filed at least 90 days before the contest, meaning the start of August — a deadline that could be relevant to SDNY’s probes of Giuliani and the Trump 2016 inaugural committee, as well as its prosecution of the Turkish bank Halkbank. All of that is happening as the work of the courts system has been slowed considerably by the coronavirus, which one former federal prosecutor described as “a blessing for the subjects of the white collar criminal investigations.”
The unusual attempt to replace Barr threatened to further stymie the SDNY probes, a currently-serving federal prosecutor noted.
“What’s a shame is that, with grand juries operating on such a limited basis since March, so many critical investigations have been slow to advance. I can’t say whether Rudy or anyone else would have been indicted by now, but the slowdown in grand jury activity has been a blessing for the subjects of the white collar criminal investigations,” this prosecutor told The Daily Beast.
Across Trump World this weekend, the push to oust Berman was cheered as one small step in what many officials and conservative loyalists hope will be a greater purge of the federal government.
“In light of the Flynn and other abuses, all Mueller prosecutions and their progeny should be presumed compromised and should be frozen and audited. The lawless resistance by the US Attorney proves the point,” said Tom Fitton, who leads the right-leaning organization Judicial Watch and remains a favorite of the president’s on Twitter and on Fox shows.
—with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman, Spencer Ackerman, Blake Montogomery and Sam Stein.