President Trump on Saturday fired the federal prosecutor whose office put his former personal lawyer in prison and is investigating his current one, heightening criticism that the president was carrying out an extraordinary purge to rid his administration of officials whose independence could be a threat to his reelection campaign.
Trump’s dismissal of the prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney in Manhattan, whose office has pursued one case after another that have rankled Trump, led to political blowback and an unexpected result: By the end of the day, Berman’s hand-picked deputy, not the administration’s favored replacement, was chosen to succeed him for now.
The abrupt ouster of Berman came as Trump sought to reinvigorate his campaign with its first public rally in months and days after new allegations by his former national security adviser that he had engaged in “obstruction of justice as a way of life.”
It was the latest move in a broader purge of administration officials that has intensified in the months since the Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump at an impeachment trial.
Since the beginning of the year, the president has fired or forced out inspectors general with independent oversight over executive branch agencies and other key figures from the trial.
Berman, who has been in office since 2018, had declined to leave his post after Attorney General William Barr announced late Friday night that he would be replaced by Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Clayton is friendly with Trump and had golfed with the president at his club in Bedminster, N.J., as recently as last weekend, according to two people familiar with the matter.
But on Saturday, facing a standoff with Berman, Barr shifted course. In a letter released by the Justice Department, Barr told Berman that Trump had fired him and that he would be replaced temporarily with the prosecutor’s own chief deputy, Audrey Strauss.
The choice of Strauss appeared to mollify Berman, who then issued a statement saying he would step down in light of the reversal.
In the statement, Berman said that under Strauss, the Southern District of New York, as the prosecutors’ office in Manhattan is formally known, “will continue to safeguard” its “enduring tradition of integrity and independence.”
The swirl of events Saturday, which changed by the hour, was the culmination of long-standing tensions between the White House and Berman’s office, which in the past three years has brought a series of highly sensitive cases that have troubled and angered Trump and others in his inner circle.
First, there was the arrest and prosecution in 2018 of Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime legal fixer. Then, there was the indictment last year of a state-owned bank in Turkey with political connections that had drawn the president’s attention. More recently, Berman began an inquiry into Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer and one of his most ardent supporters.
Speaking briefly to reporters outside the White House before heading to a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., Trump tried to distance himself from the firing.
He insisted he was “not involved” in the decision to remove Berman despite what Barr said in his letter.
Clayton had recently signaled to his friends and the president that he wanted to return to his home in New York City and was interested in Berman’s job, according to people familiar with the matter. Barr had said New Jersey’s top federal prosecutor, Craig Carpenito, would hold the seat until the Senate could confirm Clayton.
By Saturday afternoon, the plan began to unravel, as the president and his senior aides scrambled to secure support for Clayton’s confirmation in the Senate, according to people familiar with the events.
The refusal of Republicans to defend Trump was palpable, and some people close to the president expressed concern that lawmakers in his own party would feel compelled to distance themselves from Trump’s decision.
The most prominent critic of the move was Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and a close ally of the president’s.
Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, suggested in a statement that he would allow New York’s two Democratic senators to thwart the nomination through a procedural maneuver. He complimented Clayton but noted that he had not heard from the administration about formal plans to name him. Given the number of sore spots between Trump’s Justice Department and the Southern District, its most prominent prosecutors office, it was not clear what prompted Trump and Barr to fire Berman.
At least two of the politically sensitive cases that the New York prosecutors have filed — those involving the Turkish bank and Giuliani — are continuing.
Throughout the day Saturday, many current and former employees of the Southern District marveled at just how sour relations with their colleagues in Washington had gotten. Some worried openly that the move threatened the independence of federal prosecutors.
“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,” said David Massey, a defense lawyer, who served as a Southern District prosecutor for nearly a decade.
The decision to remove Berman unfolded with particularly dizzying speed and seemed to take even several of the participants aback.
On Friday, Barr went to New York to meet with senior New York Police Department officials and, after nearly a month of public protests, to talk with them about “policing issues that have been at the forefront of national conversation and debate,” according to a Justice Department news release.
When he later met with Berman, according to two people familiar with the conversation, Barr suggested that Berman could take over the civil division of the Justice Department or become chairman of the SEC if he agreed to leave his position in Manhattan.
But Berman declined, and Barr quickly moved to fire him, announcing his decision in a highly unusual late-night Justice Department news release. Hours later, Berman issued a counterstatement denying he was leaving.
“I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position,” Berman’s statement said. He added that he had learned of Barr’s actions only from the news release.
On Saturday, the pressure reached a breaking point. Barr told Berman in his letter that he had persuaded Trump to fire Berman because he had chosen “public spectacle over public service” by not voluntarily quitting the day before.
“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,” the letter read.
In one sign that Barr’s move to oust Berman may have been hastily arranged, even Clayton, the man who had been poised to take Berman’s place, appeared to be caught off guard.
Clayton had sent an e-mail to his staff Thursday saying that he looked forward to seeing them in person, once work-at-home restrictions that had been put in place because of the coronavirus could be lifted. The e-mail offered no indication that Clayton was planning to leave the SEC, according to a person briefed on it.
Just after midnight Saturday, Clayton sent another e-mail to his employees, telling them about his new position. “Pending confirmation,” he wrote, “I will remain fully committed to the work of the commission and the supportive community we have built,” according to a copy reviewed by The New York Times.
Clayton could not be reached for comment.
On Saturday, Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, who heads the House Judiciary Committee, said the committee would investigate the firing of Berman as part of a larger inquiry into what he said was undue political interference at the Justice Department.
“The whole thing smacks of corruption and incompetence,” Nadler said of Berman’s dismissal.
Under Trump, the Justice Department has long believed that the Southern District was out of control. In no small part that was because the department believed that prosecutors in New York delayed in warning them that they were naming Trump — as “Individual-1” — in court documents in the Cohen prosecution.
When Barr became attorney general, officials in the deputy attorney general’s office, which oversees regional prosecutors, asked him to rein in Berman, who they believed was exacerbating the Southern District’s propensity for autonomy. The office has embraced its nickname the “Sovereign District” of New York because of its tradition of independence.