“Barr lied and something really stinks”

US attorney behind inquiries into Trump allies refuses to resign despite Barr announcement

Geoffrey Berman, US attorney for the Southern District of New York


William Barr said Geoffrey Berman had stepped down, a fact denied by the influential attorney involved in investigations of Rudy Giuliani and Michael Cohen
Guardian staff

US attorney general William Barr announced the resignation on Friday of an influential attorney who oversaw key prosecutions of allies of Donald Trump and an investigation into Rudy Giuliani – but it appeared the attorney in question had other ideas.

“I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning,” said Geoffrey Berman, adding he learned of his apparent departure as attorney for the Southern District of New York from a justice department press release.

“I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate,” Berman said in a statement.

“Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption. I cherish every day that I work with the men and women of this office to pursue justice without fear or favor – and intend to ensure that this office’s important cases continue unimpeded.”

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said: “This late Friday night dismissal reeks of potential corruption of the legal process. What is angering President Trump? A previous action by this US attorney or one that is ongoing?”

The dispute comes amid accusations from Congressional Democrats that Barr has politicized the justice department and acted more like Trump’s personal attorney than the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

In his press release, Barr said Trump intended to nominate Jay Clayton – chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and with virtually no experience as a federal prosecutor – to Berman’s position.

“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,” Barr said. “With tenacity and savvy, Geoff has done an excellent job leading one of our nation’s most significant US attorney’s offices.”

The US attorney in New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, will serve as acting US attorney, Barr said.

Steve Vladeck, a professor of law at the University of Texas, said on Twitter it was “clear” that “Barr lied [and] something really stinks”.

“Legally, Barr can’t fire Berman. Berman can be replaced by a Senate-confirmed successor. Not clear: Whether Trump can fire Berman. Whether Barr/Trump can name his replacement without Senate confirmation. Why this happened.”

The announcement, late on Friday, came after Barr visited New York City and met police officials.

It came just days after former national security adviser John Bolton claimed in his tell-all book that Trump promised Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan he would interfere in the Halkbank case, which was being prosecuted in the Southern District.

The office has prosecuted a number of Trump associates, including former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who served a prison sentence for lying to Congress and campaign finance crimes. He has also been investigating Giuliani and his associates and the case of Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and convicted sex offender who counted Trump among powerful friends and who died in custody last year.

Prosecutors are reportedly investigating Giuliani’s business dealings, including whether he failed to register as a foreign agent.

Berman, a Republican who contributed to the president’s election campaign, worked for the same law firm as Giuliani and was put in his job by then-attorney general Jeff Sessions in January 2018, months after former US Attorney Preet Bharara was fired after refusing to resign along with dozens of other prosecutors appointed by Barack Obama.

As US attorney, Berman won over some skeptics when he went after Trump allies. In April 2018, FBI agents raided Cohen’s offices, an act the president decried as a politically motivated witch hunt.

Berman recused himself from directly overseeing the Cohen investigation, for reasons that were never disclosed but he has taken a direct hand in other investigations that have angered Trump. His office subpoenaed Trump’s inaugural committee for a wide range of documents as part of an investigation into potential crimes including possible illegal contributions from foreigners.

Weeks before the 2018 midterm election, Berman announced insider trading charges against an ardent Trump supporter, Chris Collins. Collins, who represented western New York in Congress, has since resigned.

Under Berman, the office also brought charges against Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who gained fame by representing adult actor Stormy Daniels in lawsuits involving Trump. Avenatti was convicted in February of trying to extort sportswear giant Nike.

The Southern District of New York is one of the nation’s premiere districts, trying major mob cases and terror cases.

Amid huge controversy on Friday night, Vladeck, the law professor, added: “It’s worth not losing sight of the fact that the Attorney General of the United States out-and-out lied in a written statement – and in a context in which there could have been little question to him that Berman would publicly call him out for doing so. And he did it anyway.”

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