President Donald Trump has released Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York in Manhattan, who has led investigations into the President's inner circle. Berman had refused to step down from his post on Friday after Attorney General Bill Barr tried to oust him.
Barr, who has long been accused of protecting Trump's close allies, announced Berman's resignation in a press release late Friday, apparently drawing little attention to the matter. He named Jay Clayton, the current chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who has no experience as a prosecutor, Trump's choice for Berman's successor.
But within a few hours, Berman countered that he had not submitted his resignation and would not submit it, and that the first one he had heard of came from Barr's press release.
"I have not resigned and have no intention of resigning my position," said Berman in a statement. "I will resign if a candidate appointed by the President is confirmed by the Senate. Until then, our investigations will continue immediately or without interruption. "
However, on Saturday, Barr Berman said in a letter that the president had released him: "Because you said you do not intend to resign, I asked the president to remove you as of today, and he did so," he wrote Barr. Berman's deputy, Audrey Strauss, will act as incumbent US attorney in Manhattan, according to the Washington Post, until his replacement is confirmed by the Senate.
As a donor to Trump's campaign and a former colleague of Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Berman examined Giuliani's efforts to find harmful information about Trump's political opponents in Ukraine to determine if he violated lobbying laws for foreign companies. He has also indicted two of Giuliani's business partners and has successfully prosecuted a case against Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to having lied to Congress about Trump's plans to build a skyscraper in Moscow.
Berman is not the first official the Trump administration has ousted in recent months. Trump also dismissed the inspector general of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, who played a central role in uncovering the whistleblower complaint at the center of the Democrat impeachment investigation, and the State Department inspector general, Steve Linick, who had reportedly investigated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Berman was appointed acting US attorney for Manhattan by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018, and took office after Trump fired his predecessor Preet Bharara, who also refused to resign. By law, incumbent officials can only be in office for a maximum of 120 days before the Senate confirms a permanent appointment hand-picked by the president.
But Trump, who said he prefers incumbent officials because he has more flexibility to replace them, has never nominated anyone to fill Berman's posts. A federal court in Manhattan therefore relied on rarely used powers to finally appoint Berman in April 2018, so that he could stay on the job until the Senate confirms another candidate.
How Bill Barr politicized the Department of Justice
The Justice Department has worked independently of the executive in the past, but under Trump this paradigm appears to be changing.
Sessions, who actively campaigned for Trump in 2016, declined to investigate possible Russian interference in the presidential election to preserve its impartiality – a decision that Trump publicly abused. In contrast, Barr has repeatedly intervened in Trump-related legal matters, denying any political motivation.
In February, Barrs DOJ Roger Stone, a political advisor and Trump's friend, recommended a milder, unspecified sentence that overturned the prosecutor's petition for a 7-9 year sentence after the president complained on Twitter that Stone treated too punishable. The move led to the resignation of several prosecutors within the department who had been working on the Stone case, which led to his high-level conviction for hindering an investigation by the House Intelligence Committee into Russia's interference in the 2016 elections and other related crimes.
In May, Barr decided to drop the charges against Trump's former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who resigned a few weeks after his appointment in 2017 when reports surfaced that he had misrepresented his talks with the Russian ambassador to Vice President Mike Pence. Flynn pleaded guilty of making false statements to the FBI. Trump, who said he was considering pardoning Flynn, publicly praised Barr's decision.
And earlier this month, Barr tried to block the publication of a paper by Trump's former national security advisor John Bolton, which claims Trump has made a condition for the release of security assistance to Ukraine: the country is publicly following an investigation into Joe Biden, the former vice president and alleged democratic candidate. If so, Bolton's report would confirm the basis for the Democrats' failed efforts to remove Trump from office. A federal judge denied the DOJ's request to block Saturday's publication.
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