New scrutiny is being given to the New York lawyer who’s emerging as President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE’s top choice to be the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, the office that would likely lead any investigation into Trump’s business practices.
Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsOvernight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability Stanford professors ask DOJ to stop looking for Chinese spies at universities in US Overnight Energy & Environment — Democrats detail clean electricity program MORE earlier this month named Geoffrey Berman, 58, to be the interim U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, replacing Preet BhararaPreet BhararaWhatever else he did, Cuomo did not obstruct justice by ranting to Obama White House Why Trump (probably) won't be indicted New York Times in discussions to acquire The Athletic: report MORE.
It’s a prestigious position, with jurisdiction over Wall Street and terrorism-related cases. Berman, who is a former law partner of Rudy Giuliani, could ultimately become Trump’s nominee to lead the office.
Berman was previously a shareholder of the New York and New Jersey offices of Greenberg Traurig, where Giuliani serves as chair of the firm’s Cybersecurity, Privacy and Crisis Management Practice, and a senior adviser to the law firm’s executive chairman.
At an oversight hearing in October, Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Trump had personally interviewed candidates for U.S. attorney positions around the country, including New York. Berman, according to a Politico report, was among those interviewed for the job.
Trump has long taken an interest in the Southern District posting, which is just one of the 93 U.S. attorney positions across the country.
Bharara, the former Obama appointee who was fired by Trump in March, tweeted in October that “it is neither normal nor advisable for Trump to personally interview candidates for US Attorney positions, especially the one in Manhattan.”
Bharara said on the episode of his podcast, “Stay Tuned with Preet,” that Trump initially asked him to stay on as the U.S. attorney in a private meeting and that Trump called him twice following that meeting. The second call Bharara declined to take; he was subsequently fired.
“I believe … that had I not been fired and had Donald Trump continued to cultivate a direct, personal relationship with me, it’s my strong belief that at some point, given the history, the president of the United States would have asked me to do something inappropriate and I would have resigned then,” Bharara said.
Trump’s meeting with Berman has also raised eyebrows among court watchers.
Victoria Bassetti, who heads the U.S. Attorney Project at the American Constitution Society, said it is virtually unprecedented for the president to interview a potential U.S. attorney nominee.
“We know based upon his behavior with Preet and also Berman that the president takes a particular interest in this office,” she said.
“We also know, obviously, that a large swath of his business practices are based in New York and certainly are subject to an investigation by this office if anything merits an investigation.”
According to Federal Election Commission records, Berman, who specialized in white collar and financial services litigation, donated $5,400 to Trump’s campaign in July 2016. He also gave $5,200 to Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE’s (R-Ariz.) bid for reelection via the Sedona PAC in February 2015.
The meeting and previous campaign contributions have raised concerns over whether Berman can be impartial if called to investigate the Trump Organization or Trump’s friends or associates.
The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York collaborated with special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE in investigating Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortDOJ investigating one-time Trump campaign adviser over alleged ties to Qatar: report Foreign lobbyists donated over M during 2020 election: report Former Mueller prosecutor representing Donoghue in congressional probes: report MORE, Trump’s former campaign chairman, for money laundering, according to a Wall Street Journal report in October.
Former colleagues, however, say Berman’s meeting with Trump was not atypical or indicative of an unscrupulous agenda.
“U.S. Attorneys are presidential appointees,” Mary Jo White, the former Securities and Exchange Committee chairwoman who served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York when Berman was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Manhattan office, said in a statement to The Hill.
“Meeting with the President prior to being nominated, at the President’s request, is thus appropriate and does not create a conflict of interest.”
“He was also one of the stars in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office when he served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney when I was the U.S. Attorney,” she added. “I am confident that he will be a strong and independent U.S. Attorney.”
Philip Sellinger, managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig’s New Jersey office and co-chair of its global office, said Berman has thoughtful judgment and a dry sense of humor.
“He’s got the exact set of skills you’d want in a U.S. attorney,” he said. “The right expertise and background, he’s highly intelligent and has a very steady, thoughtful disposition. … Where you have a prosecutor who has significant power and discretion, I don’t think there’s a better set of qualities you’d look for other than those he possesses.”
As for the contribution to Trump’s campaign, Sellinger said Berman is not political.
“He would act by the book,” he said. “He would call it as he sees it based on the merits, not based on any agenda.”
But not everyone thinks Berman, who worked as an associate counsel in the Office of Independent Counsel during the Iran-Contra probe before joining the U.S. attorney’s office, should become the nominee.
Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandHochul tells Facebook to 'clean up the act' on abortion misinformation after Texas law Democratic senators request probe into Amazon's treatment of pregnant employees The FBI comes up empty-handed in its search for a Jan. 6 plot MORE (D-N.Y.), who appears to be positioning herself to run for the White House in 2020, plans to use her privilege as a home-state senator to block Berman if he is nominated for the U.S. attorney job.
Speaking on Gillibrand’s behalf, spokesman Glen Caplin called Trump’s meeting with Berman “deeply disturbing considering the conflicts of interest inherent by his potential jurisdiction on matters that could affect the president personally.”
“It is even more disturbing in light of previous reports that President Trump asked the former FBI director for his loyalty before removing him,” he said.
“If this meeting took place it is disqualifying. Under these circumstances, if nominated, the senator would have no choice but to stand up for the independence of the U.S. attorney’s office by using her blue slip prerogative.”
The office of Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerCEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails MORE (D-N.Y.), Berman’s other home-state senator, declined to comment on his potential nomination.
However, Schumer has informed the White House he is not supportive of Berman being nominated, according to a person briefed on the conversation.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on this story. Nicholas Biase, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, also declined comment.
Sessions appointed Berman to be interim U.S. attorney on Jan. 3, replacing Joon Kim, who had served as the acting U.S. attorney after Bharara was fired. Berman’s interim post expires after 120 days.
If Berman’s appointment expires and there is not a nominee for the position, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York would have the power to appoint a new interim U.S. attorney.