WASHINGTON/NEW YORK • A standoff over the independence of one of the country’s most important prosecutor’s offices ended when Mr Geoffrey Berman agreed to step down as US attorney for the Southern District of New York, the office that had been investigating President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani.
Mr Berman’s confirmation of his departure came after Attorney-General (A-G) William Barr told him last Saturday that he had been fired by Mr Trump, at Mr Barr’s request, and that Mr Berman’s hand-picked No. 2, deputy US attorney Audrey Strauss, would be acting US attorney until a permanent replacement is installed.
Under Ms Strauss’ leadership, Mr Berman said the office could continue its “tradition of integrity and independence”.
Mr Berman’s office, which is known for prosecuting the most high-profile terrorism cases, Wall Street financial crimes and government corruption, has not shied from taking on figures in Mr Trump’s orbit.
It oversaw the prosecution of Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s former personal lawyer, indicted two Giuliani 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.
Mr Giuliani has not formally been accused of any wrongdoing.
The standoff with Mr Berman was the latest in a series of moves by Mr Barr that critics say are meant to benefit Mr Trump politically and undermine the independence of the Justice Department.
The row with Mr Berman began late last Friday, when Mr Barr unexpectedly announced that Mr Berman was stepping down and would be replaced by US Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Jay Clayton.
But Mr Berman issued a statement saying he had no intention of stepping down until the Senate confirmed his successor, and that his office’s probes would continue.
That same day, Mr Barr said he had picked Mr Craig Carpenito, the US attorney for the Southern District of New Jersey, to serve as acting US attorney until Mr Clayton’s confirmation.
But in a letter to Mr Berman the next day, Mr Barr back-tracked from that plan, saying Ms Strauss would take over in an acting capacity. In the letter, Mr Barr said he was “surprised and quite disappointed” by Mr Berman’s statement in which he refused to quit his job, and he accused Mr Berman of choosing “public spectacle over public service”.
“I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so,” Mr Barr said.
Mr Trump told Fox News Channel that he had approved Mr Barr’s request, and said he did not know Mr Giuliani was being investigated by Mr Berman, although he had read that recently.
“If (Barr) wants to do something… I don’t get involved,” Mr Trump said in an interview. “But the president has to sign a document, where I guess you give it your OK. And he wants to run his operation, and that’s okay with me.”
Asked if Mr Barr said why he wanted to fire Mr Berman, Mr Trump said: “We spent very little time talking about it, but I have a lot of respect for Attorney-General Barr.”