Push to oust Manhattan attorney sparks fresh crisis for DOJ

The Justice Department's push to oust a key U.S. attorney who spearheaded multiple probes involving associates of President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE has spurred a new crisis for the administration.

The chaotic and fast-moving situation began to unfold in public view on Friday night when Attorney General William BarrBill BarrTrump: Yates either lying or grossly incompetent Trump administration awarding M in housing grants to human trafficking survivors Trump stokes conspiracy about Epstein death, stands by wishes for Ghislaine Maxwell MORE abruptly announced that Geoffrey Berman would be "stepping down" as the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan.

That was met with an extraordinary statement released roughly an hour later by Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, in which he stated, “I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position,” adding that his office’s investigations would continue.

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The move marks the latest chapter in a long saga of internal battles involving the Justice Department and top personnel and sets up an apparent standoff between the administration and a key federal prosecutor just months before the presidential election.

Berman’s office has investigated several Trump associates, including Michael CohenMichael Dean CohenThe Hill's 12:30 Report: White House, Dems debate coronavirus relief package Michael Cohen offered job as political consultant, lawyer says On The Money: Democratic leaders report 'some progress' in stimulus talks | Prosecutors hint at probe into 'possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization' MORE, Trump's former lawyer who was imprisoned for campaign finance violations and lying to Congress.

The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York previously subpoenaed Trump’s inaugural committee over an investigation into potential illegal contributions from foreigners, and it charged former Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsNY Republican Chris Jacobs wins special election to replace Chris Collins 5 things to watch in Tuesday's primaries Trump drags mild-mannered regulator into political firefight MORE (R-N.Y.), a Trump ally, with insider trading.

The office has also been investigating Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiGiuliani says Black Lives Matter is 'domestic terrorist' group Commission on Presidential Debates rejects Trump campaign call for earlier debate The Hill's Campaign Report: COVID-19 puts conventions in flux  MORE, the president's personal attorney, in a campaign finance case that has already produced charges against two Giuliani associates.

The abrupt ouster Friday, which reportedly came after a meeting earlier in the day between Barr and Berman in New York, sparked an uproar from Democrats who said the firing was further evidence that Trump was using the Justice Department to protect himself and his allies.

“This late Friday night dismissal reeks of potential corruption of the legal process. What is angering President Trump? A previous action by this U.S. Attorney or one that is ongoing?” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package Trump backs plan to give airlines another billion in aid MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a statement late Friday night.

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Schumer later called for the Department of Justice (DOJ) inspector general to “immediately launch an investigation into the reasons behind the decision by the president and the attorney general to attempt to dismiss Mr. Berman.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Hill on Berman’s refusal to step down or Democrats’ criticism of his dismissal.

Democrats have long focused their ire on Trump and Barr, accusing the two of waging an effort to politicize the Justice Department and purge those officials deemed insufficiently loyal, though administration officials have defended Trump's authority to install officials he desires.

The concerns in Washington started early on in the administration after Trump berated then-Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence FBI officials hid copies of Russia probe documents fearing Trump interference: book Tuberville breaks DC self-quarantine policy to campaign MORE for recusing himself from the federal Russia probe. Democrats also criticized Barr's handling of the report produced by former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE.

The administration also raised eyebrows recently after Barr intervened in the case against Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneNew HBO documentary lets Gaetz, Massie, Buck offer their take on how to 'drain the swamp' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Brawls on Capitol Hill on Barr and COVID-19 Democrats blister Barr during tense hearing MORE, the longtime GOP operative and former Trump campaign adviser who worked to get dirt on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump touts economic agenda in battleground Ohio The Memo: Campaigns gird for rush of early voting Trump's pitch to Maine lobstermen falls flat MORE during the 2016 campaign. Democrats similarly blasted Barr after the DOJ moved last month to drop its case against Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his contacts with Russian officials.

The Trump administration tapped Berman in January 2018 to fill the U.S. attorney position in Manhattan on an acting basis, but the administration did not send a nominee to the Senate for a permanent replacement. Judges with a Manhattan-based federal court later that year appointed Berman to stay in the position after a 120-day period had ended.

Berman, who had been a law partner to Giuliani and previously served as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan in the early 1990s, was selected to replace Preet BhararaPreetinder (Preet) Singh BhararaDemocratic attorneys criticize House Judiciary Democrats' questioning of Barr Clyburn echoes calls to rename Pettus bridge Support swells for renaming Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to honor John Lewis after his death MORE, a holdover from the Obama administration who also refused to resign from his post in 2017 and was fired.

A DOJ official speaking on the condition of anonymity told Bloomberg News on Saturday that despite Berman's refusal to step down, Barr planned to move ahead and install an acting U.S. attorney on July 3 and seek Senate confirmation for a permanent replacement.

The department said Friday that Berman would be replaced in an acting capacity by Craig Carpenito, currently the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, and that Jay Clayton, the current chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, would be nominated to fill the position on a permanent basis.

Observers noted that Clayton has no prosecutorial experience and underscored that the succession plan appeared to deviate from normal protocol. 

"Berman’s resignation is not typical," tweeted Daniel Goldman, who spent a decade as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York and served as a top litigator on Democratic side of the House impeachment proceedings.

Goldman asserted that selecting a U.S. attorney from another office to step in "is a sign that Trump/Barr did not want anyone at SDNY running the office — likely because there was a serious disagreement."

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The Wall Street Journal reported that Barr had offered Berman the job of leading the DOJ's civil division in Washington but that he declined. A Justice Department official told the newspaper that Clayton had told administration officials he was interested in serving as the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan and that Barr agreed.

For his part, Berman emphasized in his statement that he was "appointed by the Judges of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York" and he would "step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate." He said his office's investigations would continue "without delay or interruption" until then.

Berman’s dismissal is certain to compound Democrats’ concerns over politicization in the Justice Department but also threatens another crisis facing Trump fewer than five months before he faces off against former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Biden clarifies comments comparing African American and Latino communities Kanye West may have missed deadline to get on Wisconsin ballot by minutes: report MORE.

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“Last night’s news raises yet more fundamental questions about the rule of law in the Trump Administration, and heightens extraordinary concerns about an attorney general who seems to subvert his duty to seek impartial justice in order to further the political interests of the president,” Biden Deputy Campaign Manager and Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said. 

“The Administration must be held to account for the rash of irregular actions taken by Attorney General Barr’s Department of Justice for the president’s personal and political benefit.” 

The president has already caught flak over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 119,000 people in the U.S., as well as his rhetoric toward demonstrators protesting over systemic racism and police brutality.

“This is a bombshell. Was the attempted stealth removal of the US Attorney done by AG barr to protect donald trump or his associates from investigation or prosecution? We need to find out,” tweeted Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellLawmakers urge administration to remove tariffs on European wine and spirits amid coronavirus pandemic The Hill's Campaign Report: Florida's coronavirus surge raises questions about GOP convention New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell wins Democratic primary MORE (D-N.J.).

For his part, Berman arrived at his office on Saturday, telling reporters staked out there that he had nothing else to add to his statement beyond saying that he's "just here to do my job."