Attorney General William P. Barr late Friday stunned the legal world by abruptly announcing that Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which includes Manhattan, is “stepping down.”
But Mr. Berman quickly fired back that he has no intention of resigning and now Congress wants to investigate the matter.
The drama unfolded just before midnight Friday. First, Mr. Barr announced that Mr. Berman would leave the position he’s held for two and a half years.
Mr. Berman, who worked for President Trump’s election, heads the office which is conducting multiple investigations into President Trump’s allies.
“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,” Mr. Barr said in a statement around 10:00 pm. “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.”
No explanation was offered for the move.
Mr. Barr said Craig Carpentino, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, would take over Mr. Berman’s office on an interim basis. The move is a departure from Justice Department procedures, which usually appoints a prosecutor within the same office to take over as an acting U.S. attorney.
Mr. Trump then announced his intent to nominate Jay Clayton, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission to succeed Mr. Berman, pending a Senate confirmation.
The sudden job shuffling soon descended into chaos as just before midnight, Mr. Berman announced that he would not resign, contradicting Mr. Barr’s earlier announcement.
“I learned in a press release from the Attorney General tonight that I was ‘stepping down’ as United States Attorney,” Mr. Berman said in a statement posted to his office’s Twitter account.
“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,” Mr. Berman’s statement continued.
“I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate,” he continued.
Mr. Berman also promised that his investigations — some of which involve Mr. Trump’s allies — will “move forward without delay or interruption.”
Then Congress weighed in with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Nadler announcing at midnight he wants Mr. Berman to testify before his panel.
“America is right to expect the worst of Bill Barr, who has repeatedly interfered in criminal investigations on Trump’s behalf,” Mr. Nadler said. “We have a hearing on this topic on Wednesday. We welcome Mr. Berman’s testimony and will invite him to testify.”
This week two Justice Department officials and a former official from President George W. Bush’s administration will testify on allegations Mr. Barr has interfered in investigations.
All the drama sets up a power struggle between the Justice Department and the Southern District of New York, arguably the country’s most prominent and powerful U.S. Attorney’s office.
And top lawmakers have already weighed in. 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.