- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 20, 2020

President Trump on Saturday officially fired the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, where Manhattan is located, Attorney General William P. Barr said in a letter.

But Mr. Trump, speaking to reporters, appeared to distance himself from the decision to terminate Geoffrey S. Berman, who is leading several high-profile investigations into the president’s allies.

“Well, that’s up to the attorney general,” Mr. Trump said when questioned by reporters. “That’s his department, not my department. But we have a very capable attorney general so that’s really up to him. I”m not involved.”

The firing capped a wild Friday night and Saturday afternoon at the Justice Department in which Mr. Barr said he was replacing Mr. Berman, who fired back late Friday that he had no intention of resigning.

The standoff ended Saturday afternoon after Mr. Barr wrote a letter to the powerful federal prosecutor telling him he had been terminated by the president.

“Unfortunately, with your statement of last night, you have chosen public spectacle over public service,” Mr. Barr wrote in a letter obtained by The Washington Times.

“Because you have declared that you have no intention of resigning, I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he as done so,” the letter continued.

Mr. Barr wrote he was “surprised and quite disappointed” by Mr. Berman’s statement to the press.

In a statement posted to Twitter just before midnight Friday, Mr. Berman said he had not resigned and had no intention to do so. He also vowed that his investigations will “move forward without delay or interruption.”

The attorney general threatened to unleash the Justice Department Inspector General — who investigates interference and wrongdoing by department employees — on Mr. Berman if he attempts to intervene in ongoing cases.

“Your statement also wrongly implies that your continued tenure in the office is necessary to ensure that cases now pending in the Southern District of New York are handled appropriately,” Mr. Barr wrote. “This is obviously false. I fully expect that the office will continue to handle all cases in the normal case and pursuant to the department’s applicable standards, policies, and guidance.”

“Going forward, if any actions or decisions are taken that officer supervisors conclude are improper interference with a case, that information should be provided immediately to Michael Horowitz, the Department of Justice’s Inspector General, whom I am authorizing to review any such claim,” Mr. Barr continued.

Mr. Berman initially planned to remain in his job until a replacement was confirmed, but he changed his mind late Saturday after Mr. Barr said he would allow Mr. Berman’s second in command, Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss, to become acting U.S. attorney, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Berman said that led him to announce he would be leaving, “effective immediately.”

The attorney general has appointed Ms. Strauss to lead the office until a permanent successor is in place. On Friday, Mr. Barr said U.S. Attorney For New Jersey Craig Carpenito would leading the office. It is not clear if Mr. Carpenito will still serve as acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Mr. Trump on Friday said he intended to nominate Jay Clayton, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission to succeed Mr. Berman, pending Senate confirmation.

Mr. Barr has not explained why he wanted to oust Mr. Berman or replace him with Mr. Clayton, who has no prosecutorial experience.

“I wanted the opportunity to choose a distinguished New York lawyer, Jay Clayton to nominate as United States Attorney and was hoping for your cooperation to facilitate a smooth transition,” Mr. Barr wrote, failing to shed any more light on the decision.

Mr. Berman could have moved to a senior position within the Justice Department or serve as Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, according to Mr. Barr’s letter.

Top lawmakers on Saturday blasted Mr. Barr and the president over the decision to sack Mr. Berman.

Sen. Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, called on Mr. Clayton, the nominee for the position, to withdraw his name from consideration.

“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,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said he would wait to receive blue slips — a sheet of paper that indicates if a senator supports a nominee from their state — before advancing Mr. Clayton’s nomination.

That could give Mr. Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, a chance to block the nomination by returning blue slips.

Mr. Graham said he had not been notified by the administration of its intent to nominate Mr. Clayton, who he described as a “fine man and accomplished lawyer.”

“As to processing U.S. Attorney nominations, it has always been the policy of the Judiciary Committee to receive blue slips from the home state senators before proceeding to the nomination,” Mr. Graham said in a statement.

“As chairman, I have honored that policy and will continue to do so,” the statement continued.

But Mr. Schumer said he’ll press for an investigation into the decision to remove Mr. Berman.

“I am calling for the Department of Justice Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility to immediately launch an investigation into the reasons behind the decision by the president and the attorney general to attempt to dismiss Mr. Berman,” he said.

Preet Bharara, who preceded Mr. Berman as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York during President Obama’s tenure, said he was alarmed by the move.

Mr. Bharara also had his own scuffle with Mr. Trump when he also refused to step down from the same position. In his case, the Trump administration had also released a statement saying he had left office.

“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?” he tweeted.

Federal prosecutors in Mr. Berman’s office are investigating the business dealings of Mr. Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, including whether he failed to register as a foreign agent, according to media reports.

The office prosecuted Mr. Trump’s former fixer and now foe Michael Cohen, who served a brief prison sentence for lying to Congress and violating campaign finance laws.

Mr. Berman also oversaw the prosecution of two Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were charged in October with campaign finance violations, including funneling foreign money into U.S. elections.

Mr. Berman’s office is also probing the Turkish financial institution Halkbank for allegedly violating U.S. trade sanctions against Iran in order to free a U.S. pastor imprisoned in Turkey.

In his upcoming tell-all book, former national security advisor John Bolton claims Mr. Trump told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan he would block the probe in exchange for releasing the American pastor.

• This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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