WASHINGTON • A top US federal prosecutor, whose office has been investigating President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, has refused to step down after the administration abruptly said it was replacing him.
The dramatic stand-off marks the latest in a series of unusual actions by Attorney-General William Barr that critics say is meant to benefit Mr Trump politically and undermine the independence of the Justice Department.
It also comes as Mr Trump seeks to purge officials perceived as not fully supporting him. In recent weeks, he has fired a series of agency watchdogs, including one who played a key role in his impeachment earlier this year.
Mr Barr, in a surprise late-night announcement on Friday, said the US Attorney in Manhattan, Mr Geoffrey Berman, was stepping down and that he would nominate Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Jay Clayton to take Mr Berman’s spot.
Mr Berman, who leads a powerful office known for prosecuting high-profile terrorism cases, Wall Street financial crimes and government corruption, said he first learnt of the move from Mr Barr’s press statement and would not go quietly.
“I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning my position,” he said in a statement. “I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate. Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption.”
A Justice Department official, asked about Mr Berman’s refusal to leave the post until a successor is confirmed, told Reuters the “timeline remains the same” as what Mr Barr laid out in announcing the replacement.
Since being appointed in January 2018, Mr Berman has not shied from taking on figures in Mr Trump’s orbit. His office oversaw the prosecution of Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s former personal lawyer, indicted two of Mr Giuliani’s associates and launched a probe into Mr Giuliani in connection with his efforts to dig up dirt on Mr Trump’s political adversaries in Ukraine.
Prosecutors have not accused Mr Giuliani of wrongdoing.
Mr Berman’s abrupt attempted dismissal came as the Justice Department asks a federal court to block the publication of a book by former national security adviser John Bolton, whose claims include an allegation that Mr Trump tried to interfere with a probe overseen by Mr Berman’s office.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the top Democrat in the US Senate, wrote on Twitter: “This late Friday night dismissal reeks of potential corruption of the legal process. What is angering President Trump? A previous action by this US Attorney or one that is ongoing?”
House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, also a Democrat, said he intends to invite Mr Berman to testify.
Mr Berman replaced Mr Preet Bharara, who was himself fired as US Attorney in early 2017 soon after Mr Trump became president.
Mr Bharara, an outspoken critic of the President, said the timing of the push to replace his successor was strange. “Why does a president get rid of his own hand-picked US Attorney in SDNY (Southern District of New York) on a Friday night, less than five months before the election?” he wrote on Twitter, referring to the upcoming US presidential election in November.
While the Senate considers Mr Clayton’s nomination, Mr Trump has appointed the US Attorney for the District of New Jersey Craig Carpenito as the acting US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Mr Barr said in his statement.
But it was not clear whether Mr Barr can force Mr Berman out. The latter was never confirmed by the Senate, the usual process for appointing attorneys, and was instead appointed by the judges of the district in accordance with a law that says he can serve until the vacancy is filled.
University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck said the vacancy needs to be filled by someone who is Senate-confirmed or chosen by a judge.