U.S. Attorney General William Barr discusses an order by the Trump administration to the International Criminal Court during a joint press conference at the U.S. Department of State in Washington on June 11, 2020.
Yuri Gripas | Reuters
Attorney General William Barr informed Manhattan Supreme Attorney Geoffrey Berman that he was released in a letter from President Donald Trump on Saturday after Berman initially refused to resign.
The letter, informing Berman of his removal, is in the midst of a power struggle over who will fill one of the nation's most powerful law enforcement positions in the nation. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York heads an office that has launched several investigations into President Trump's employees.
Attorney General Barr, in his Saturday letter, accused Berman of choosing "public spectacle over public service" by refusing to step aside, saying that the President immediately dismissed Berman as Manhattan chief prosecutor at his request. US deputy attorney Audrey Strauss is now the incumbent US attorney in the district, Barr said.
"Because you stated that you do not intend to resign, I asked the President to remove you as of today, and he did so," said Barr Berman in the letter.
The Trump administration has appointed Securities and Exchange Commissioner Jay Clayton US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Barr said in a press release Friday night that Berman is stepping down from his position.
However, Berman said he had no intention of resigning until Trump's nominee was confirmed by the Senate.
After Barr's letter was published, Berman said that he is now actually leaving his position as his deputy, Strauss, becomes the United States' acting attorney for the district. He said Strauss "would continue to maintain the long-standing tradition of the southern district's integrity and independence."
"It has been the honor of my life to act as US attorney for this district and administrator of its proud heritage, but I couldn't leave the district in better hands than Audreys," said Berman. "She is the smartest, most principled, and most effective lawyer I've ever worked with."
The southern district of New York is investigating Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and has been convicted of former president Michael Cohen's personal lawyer for financial crimes.
The White House had initially tried to appoint the United States attorney for New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, to be the acting attorney for the southern district of New York, while the Senate is considering Clayton's appointment. Carpenito is close to former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who in turn is an ally of Trump.
Trump told reporters before boarding Marine One Saturday that he wasn't involved in the decision to fire Berman.
Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Southern District Attorney's Office on October 10, 2019 in New York City.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
"Well, it's entirely up to the Attorney General," Trump said. "Attorney General Barr is working on it. This is his department, not my department. But we have a very capable Attorney General. So it's really up to him. I'm not involved."
A senior official told NBC News that Barr had asked permission to fire Berman, and Trump agreed.
"When the intention was to appoint Jay Clayton to be a United States attorney general, Attorney General Bill Barr attempted a smooth transition," said the official. "Geoffrey Berman declined all positions offered to him and made a public spectacle, which prompted Barr to ask permission to fire the US attorney immediately, and President Trump agreed."
Many legal observers were shocked on Friday night when Barr said Berman would step down and the president would nominate Clayton to replace him. Clayton has never worked as a prosecutor.
New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, have asked Clayton to withdraw his name from the nomination process.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump, said he would follow the precedent as chairman of the judiciary committee and not continue Clayton's nomination until home state senators, Schumer and Gillibrand, gave their approval.
However, Graham said that Berman's dismissal was in Trump's power as president. "I believe that every president has the opportunity to replace political representatives like US lawyers," said Graham on Saturday.
Berman was first appointed Attorney General for the SDNY by the then Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018 and was later appointed by the judges in the southern district.
Read Attorney General William Barr's full letter to Geoffrey Berman:
I was surprised and rather disappointed by the press release you published last night. As we discussed, I wanted to have the opportunity to nominate a respected New York lawyer, Jay Clayton, as a United States attorney, and I hoped to work with you to ensure a smooth transition. When the Justice Department informed the public about the President's intention to appoint your successor, I understood that we were in ongoing discussions about the possibility of you staying in the Ministry or in administration in one of the other senior positions we discussed, including the deputy attorney, was General for the Civil Department and Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Although we have told the public that you will be leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office in two weeks, I still hoped that your departure could be mutually acceptable.
Unfortunately, with your statement last night, you preferred public spectacle to public service. Since you stated that you do not intend to resign, I asked the President to remove you as of today, and he did so. By law, the United States 'attorney-in-law, Audrey Strauss, will become the United States' attorney-in-law, and I anticipate that she will continue to serve until a permanent successor is in place. See 28 U.S.C. 541 (c).
To the extent that your testimony reflects a misunderstanding of how you may be evicted, it is clear that a US lawyer appointed by the court must be removed by the president. See U.S. v. Solomon, 216 F. Supp. 835, 843 (S.D.N.Y. 1963) (recognizing that the "President can remove the United States court attorney at any time"); see also United States v Hilario, 218 F.3d 19, 27 (1 Cir. 2000) (same). Indeed, the court's power to appoint was maintained only because the executive retained the power to monitor and remove the officer.
Your statement also incorrectly implies that your continued term in the office is necessary to ensure that cases now pending in the southern district of New York are handled appropriately. This is obviously wrong. I assume that the office will continue to process all cases in the normal course and in accordance with the applicable standards, guidelines and guidelines of the department. If in the future measures or decisions are taken that the supervisory authorities classify as inappropriate intervention in a case, this information should be immediately made available to Michael Horowitz, the Inspector General of the Ministry of Justice, who I authorize to examine such claims. Supervision of the situation by the Inspector General will create additional confidence that all cases will continue to be decided on the law and the facts.
Read Geoffrey Berman's full statement:
Given Attorney General Barr's decision to respect normal law and appoint US Attorney Audrey Strauss as incumbent US Attorney, I will leave the U.S. Attorney's Office for the southern district of New York with immediate effect.
It has been the honor of my life to act as the US attorney for this district and administrator of its proud heritage, but I couldn't leave the district in better hands than Audrey. She is the smartest, most principled and most effective lawyer I have ever worked with. And I know that the unprecedented AUSAs, investigators, legal assistants and staff of this office, under their leadership, will continue to preserve the southern district's long-standing tradition of integrity and independence.
– CNBC's Dan Mangan contributed to this report