GOP rallies around Trump after firing of Manhattan US attorney
Senate Republicans on Monday largely defended President Trump following his controversial decision this week to fire Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said Trump was within his right to fire Berman, who was involved in a number of politically sensitive investigations that touched on Trump and his advisers.
“It’s kind of like previous firings, I would say,” Thune said. “These people all serve at the pleasure of the president. My assumption is that whatever investigation is underway will be continued by the career staff there. The show will go on.”
Attorney General William Barr announced Berman would step down on Friday night. Berman then resisted that move and said he would not leave office to make way for Barr’s preferred replacement, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton, who does not have any experience as a federal prosecutor.
Trump then formally fired Berman, but not before Berman was able to pick Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss as his acting successor. Barr’s agreement to this was a factor in Berman stepping away instead of fighting the move in court.
It is believed that Strauss will carry on the investigations that may have unsettled the White House. These include an investigation into the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and a probe into Halkbank, a state-run Turkish bank that former national security adviser John Bolton alleges that Trump may be trying to shield from prosecution.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) dismissed the criticism of Trump’s intervention into the Southern District as the latest “tempest in a teapot.”
“Everything the president does generates controversy. Everything the attorney general does generates controversy. That doesn’t mean it’s warranted,” he said. “Clearly the attorney general and the president are within their rights.”
Asked about a possible conflict of interest in Berman’s dismissal, Cornyn said there’s no evidence of that.
“I’m not aware of the fact that he’s investigating Giuliani but if he is, the Department of Justice is capable of continuing that without Mr. Berman.”
Cornyn said he has “no idea” why Berman was fired but doesn’t think Trump owes the public an explanation.
There have been some signs of GOP unease at Barr’s and Trump’s maneuvering.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) announced Saturday he would not move Clayton’s nomination through his committee until he receives blue-slip signoffs from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Schumer announced Monday afternoon he would not give the nominee a green light.
It had long been tradition in the Senate that a judicial nomination would only go forward if the two senators from the nominee’s home state submitted blue-slip documents signing off, although the practice has waned in recent years amid growing partisan tensions.
“It applies to U.S. attorneys and district court judges,” Graham said Monday. “That’s been the tradition of the committee for as long as I can remember. We’ll keep that in place.”
He acknowledged Berman’s firing was “inartful,” but didn’t see anything necessarily improper.
“I just want to know is there anything [the president] did that would impede investigations, and I don’t think so,” Graham said.
One senator facing a tough reelection race this fall was more critical.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Trump should not have fired the prosecutor in the midst of an investigation into his personal lawyer.
“While the president has the authority to fire U.S. attorneys, he should not have relieved Mr. Berman of his duties at this time,” she said in a statement.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent critic of Trump who voted to impeach the president, said from the outside “it looks pretty swampy.”
“I’m sure we’ll get more information as he speaks out,” he said. “I certainly hope that any investigations that were being pursued, particularly those that would relate to the president or donors or friends would be continue to be pursued.”
The White House also sought to distance Trump from Barr’s decision.
“The attorney general was taking the lead on this matter,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during her press briefing on Monday. “He did come to the president and report to him when Mr. Berman decided not to leave, and at that point is when the president agreed with the attorney general.
“He was involved in a sign-off capacity,” McEnany said of Trump.
She also denied that Berman had been fired because of any of his investigations.
Another possible factor emerged Monday when The Wall Street Journal reported that Berman on Thursday had refused to sign a letter criticizing New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) for OK’ing protests but not religious gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. Two people familiar with the matter told the Journal that the incident compounded Barr’s existing frustration with Berman.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) on Monday said it’s Trump’s prerogative to hire and fire U.S. attorneys and noted these types of dispute aren’t new.
Former President George W. Bush’s Justice Department sparked a storm of controversy in 2006 when it announced the sudden dismissal of seven U.S. attorneys.
“It’s always been the rule that the president gets to name U.S. attorneys,” Wicker added. “Generally speaking, this is the president’s call.”
Senate Republicans’ response to Berman’s ouster was significantly muted compared to their reaction to the president’s firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick last month.
Several Republicans, including Thune and Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) at the time demanded a detailed explanation from Trump for the termination, which the president was required to provide to Congress under the 2008 Inspector General Reform Act.
Grassley, who was serving as chairman of the Judiciary Committee when Trump nominated Berman to the Southern District, on Monday said Schumer and Gillibrand had never returned blue slips on Berman’s nomination when the Trump administration advanced it in 2018.
“What I can’t figure out, the Democrats are talking about it and when he was nominated by the president, both Democratic senators said they weren’t going to return the blue slip. So, there’s a lot of hypocrisy,” Grassley said.