NEW YORK — One Friday afternoon in August 2018, lawyers for President Trump’s longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, made a final bid for leniency to federal prosecutors in Manhattan. He was facing charges including that he paid hush money on Trump’s behalf to an adult film star during the 2016 campaign.
Audrey Strauss, one of two senior prosecutors in the room, listened silently to the pitch, smiling at the lawyers but letting others do the talking, people familiar with the meeting said. Over the next few days, however, Strauss played a key role in the momentous decision to proceed against Cohen, a move that infuriated the White House.
Now, Strauss, a 72-year-old former defense lawyer known for her understated style, has been forced into the spotlight, taking over as the acting US attorney in the storied prosecutor’s office, which continues to find itself in the president’s cross hairs. She will lead politically sensitive investigations into people in Trump’s orbit in the runup to a hotly contested election, and her decisions will be scrutinized.
Strauss’ appointment happened with dizzying speed. In the span of 24 chaotic hours this weekend, Trump and his attorney general, William Barr, had tried to oust her boss, Geoffrey M. Berman, and replace him with one of Barr’s allies.
When Berman initially refused to step down, the plan fell apart. Trump ended up firing Berman on Saturday, leaving Strauss — Berman’s top deputy — to emerge from the wreckage as the office’s new leader.
In that role, she will oversee a number of investigations that have upset the president, including the inquiry into whether Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, broke lobbying laws in his dealings in Ukraine.
During the last two years as a top supervisor in the Southern District of New York, Strauss has become known for taking a more cautious approach than some of her predecessors when weighing charging decisions, former colleagues said. She spent three decades as a defense lawyer facing off against prosecutors in white-collar cases, they said, and she is highly attuned to holes in the government’s evidence.
Her coolheaded approach — distilling arguments, weighing the evidence, and then ruling decisively — was evident in discussions over the Cohen case and is typical for Strauss, according to lawyers who have worked with her for decades.
Longtime friends say Strauss, a registered Democrat, is unlikely to be influenced by political motives.
“She is totally nonpolitical in her decision-making process,” said Jed S. Rakoff, a federal judge in Manhattan who worked with Strauss in the US attorney’s office in the 1970s and later at two private law firms.
“I’ve never met anyone who is more immune to the passions of the moment,” said Rakoff, who officiated the wedding of Strauss’ son.
Strauss becomes the second woman to lead the Southern District in the office’s 230-year history after Mary Jo White, who led the office from 1993 to 2002.
“She masters the facts of everything she ever does,” White said of Strauss. “She figures out how everything fits into the picture, and she’s not satisfied until she knows everything she can possibly know.”
Barr had announced that the president intended to nominate Jay Clayton, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, as Berman’s permanent replacement.
But Strauss is likely to remain the acting US attorney until at least the election. The Senate goes out of session in August and is unlikely to hold a nomination hearing for any permanent replacement before November.
Barr had initially announced in a news release Friday night that Craig Carpenito, the US attorney in New Jersey, would become the acting head in the Southern District. But the decision caused an uproar. Berman refused to step down until Saturday, when Strauss was named instead as his temporary replacement.
When Berman took over as US attorney in 2018, he brought Strauss out of retirement to become his senior counsel and later his deputy. She had worked as a Southern District prosecutor from 1976 to 1983, trying more than 20 cases and rising to chief of criminal appeals and, later, the securities fraud unit.
Strauss and Berman have known each other for at least three decades. They worked together in the late 1980s on the independent counsel’s investigation into the Iran-Contra scandal.
“She is the smartest, most principled and effective lawyer with whom I have ever had the privilege of working,” Berman said in a statement Saturday when he announced he would leave the office.
Strauss’ husband, John “Rusty” Wing, a prominent white-collar defense lawyer, is a registered Republican, according to the most recent records from the New York state Board of Elections. Their son, who previously worked as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press secretary, is married to a senior aide to Cuomo.
Campaign finance records show that Strauss is a longtime donor to Democratic candidates, including Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2007 and Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012. She contributed in 2006 to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Strauss and her husband have donated to several nonprofit organizations, including after-school programs for underprivileged teenagers and a housing provider for homeless families.
She also has served on the board of the Legal Aid Society, which represents poor defendants, and of the Innocence Project, a group that works to free wrongfully convicted prisoners.
“There’s nothing good about this whole unhappy episode, but you couldn’t find anybody with more integrity, more smarts, and more adult judgment than Audrey,” said Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project. “She is really widely admired by everyone.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, praised Strauss, saying she was “widely viewed as a highly competent, highly capable deputy US attorney with the knowledge and experience to hit the ground running.”
On Friday, Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had signaled that he would allow New York’s Democratic senators to block Trump’s first choice, Clayton, to replace Berman.
Lisa Zornberg, a former chief of the Southern District’s criminal division, said Strauss was an inspiration to younger lawyers, particularly women. Strauss once invited the office’s female prosecutors to her home in Brooklyn and talked proudly about how it had once been owned by one of the first female physicians in the borough.
“She’s a person of vast intellect and experience from every angle as a lawyer,” Zornberg said.
Strauss was born and raised in Philadelphia with an older brother, who retired from NASA, having been a doctor for astronauts, according to people who know her.
Her parents were the children of Russian immigrants — a shoe salesman and a stay-at-home mother — and they died when she was young. Family friends took her in and made her part of their family; they remain close to this day.
She has been a New Yorker since age 16, when she came to the city to enroll at Barnard College. She and Wing raised their daughter and son in Brooklyn Heights.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Barnard, she went on to get a degree from Columbia Law School in 1971, at a time when women were largely excluded from big law firms.
She spent more than two decades at law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, where she led the white-collar criminal defense group. Before returning to government in 2018, Strauss served as the chief legal officer for aluminum producer Alcoa Corp.
“She’s really tough,” said Elkan Abramowitz, who supervised Strauss when she was a prosecutor in the 1970s. “She’s a very straight, serious person, and totally incorruptible and honest.”
Strauss has supervised sensitive cases from which Berman had been recused, including an ongoing investigation into Stephen Calk, a Chicago bank executive who served as an economic adviser to Trump’s campaign.
Calk was indicted in the Southern District last year after he was accused of giving millions of dollars in high-risk loans to Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, in an effort to obtain a senior position in the administration. Calk has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is scheduled to begin in September.
Strauss was the one who signed the indictment against Calk.