Nadler: Barr dealings with Berman came ‘awfully close to bribery’
The Democratic chairperson of the House Judiciary Committee said Thursday that Attorney General William Barr flirted with criminal conduct — and perhaps committed bribery — in his handling of the removal of a top federal prosecutor in New York.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) emerged from a closed-door hearing with Geoffrey Berman, the former U.S. attorney in Manhattan, with charges that Barr might have broken the law by offering Berman “plum assignments in the administration” and later “threatening to fire him” if he did not resign voluntarily.
“The attorney general repeatedly attempted to entice Mr. Berman to step down voluntarily, even after Berman made clear that his leaving would disrupt certain sensitive cases,” Nadler told reporters. “We don’t know yet if the attorney general’s conduct is criminal, but that kind of quid pro quo is awfully close to bribery.”
Berman, who refused to step down and was dismissed by President Trump last month, relayed the details of his June 19 encounter with Barr to members of the Judiciary Committee during a three-hour meeting in the Rayburn Office Building on Capitol Hill.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Nadler’s remarks.
During the June 19 lunch at The Pierre, a hotel in Manhattan, Berman said Barr asked him to step down from his role as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and shift to a spot in the Justice Department’s civil division. The DOJ hoped to replace Berman with Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and a close Trump ally.
Berman refused, citing Clayton’s lack of criminal experience.
Barr then pressed Berman to resign on his own accord, citing the damage to his career if he were fired.
“I told him that while I did not want to get fired, I would not resign,” Berman said in his written statement.
Trump removed Berman on June 20; he was replaced by Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss, who was Berman’s preferred successor.
Democrats contend that Berman was removed for his involvement in several sensitive investigations into members of Trump’s inner circle — probes that won the president’s disfavor.
Berman, for instance, successfully prosecuted Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney and “fixer,” on campaign finance charges. And he was in the process of investigating allegations of wrongdoing against Rudy Giuliani, who currently serves as Trump’s personal lawyer.
Berman did not comment on specific cases during Thursday’s Judiciary hearing, according to multiple members of both parties.
“But we know that any number of Trump-related investigations are run out of the Southern District of New York,” said Nadler, “and we can put two and two together.”
Republicans emerged from the meeting with decidedly different conclusions about Berman’s removal, saying it was a simple personnel change with no hint of nefarious intent on the part of Trump or his administration.
Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee and a close Trump ally, said Berman’s testimony was “a lot of nothing.”
“He talked about his removal from the position as creating delays and disruptions,” Jordan said, “yet he would not cite any case where there was any delay or disruption.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) went a step further, saying Berman’s charges against Barr were merely a symptom of damaged pride.
“It’s clear that Mr. Berman had his feelings hurt as a consequence of a desired shift in human resources within the administration,” Gaetz said.
“But in the description of events, there was no circumstance where Mr. Berman outlined any wrong-doing, any description of any case, or any particular event that would indicate a desire to have Mr. Berman act in a particular way to keep his job,” he added.
Thursday’s hearing with Berman was part of broader investigation by Nadler and the Democrats into what they consider to be the politicization of the semiautonomous DOJ under Barr’s leadership.
Barr is scheduled to testify before the Judiciary Committee on July 28.
Nadler is promising a tough regimen of questioning in an effort to determine if Barr did, indeed, cross any legal lines in his dealings with Berman.
Yet there’s no chance the DOJ would investigate its own attorney general. And even some top Democrats are acknowledging that — given the dwindling calendar and the reluctance of Republicans to scrutinize the president — they can do little more than publicize the Berman saga, and leave it to voters to decide the Trump administration’s fate in November.
“The Judiciary Committee has a responsibility to conduct hearings and expose the wrongdoing of this attorney general to the American people,” said Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), a Judiciary member and the head of the Democrats’ messaging arm.
“The impeachment of the attorney general is kind of the normal course,” he added. “I just don’t know that … that’s a useful expenditure of time.”