NEW YORK | Former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara had a snickering response to news that his successor as top federal prosecutor was “stepping down” from the job.
“Doesn’t sound like ‘stepping down,'” Bharara tweeted soon after the announcement was made Friday night that Geoffrey S. Berman was out.
He would know.
The Southern District of New York, an office older than the Justice Department itself, has long prided itself on the talent of its prosecutors, the import of its cases and an independence from Washington that has earned it the moniker of “Sovereign District.” But that hasn’t spared officials from being fired by Washington, as both Bharara and Berman have learned in 3 1/2 years.
The top prosecutors there have enjoyed an outsize celebrity status, including Rudy Giuliani (later mayor of New York), James Comey (later FBI director) Mary Jo White (later head of the Securities and Exchange Commission) and Bharara himself, who was on the cover of Time magazine before becoming a popular presence on Twitter and legal commentator on television.
“Why does a president get rid of his own hand-picked US Attorney in SDNY on a Friday night, less than 5 months before the election?” Bharara wrote in a follow-up tweet that reflected the mystery hitting the office again now.
Nobody would know better what Berman was going through than Bharara, who was told he could stay in his job in a late 2016 meeting with Donald Trump at Trump Tower only to be told to quit the post weeks after Trump’s inauguration along with other prosecutors appointed by President Barack Obama.
Bharara refused to quit, only to be fired the next day.
It was a road map for Berman, who three years later defiantly issued a statement of his own that openly mocked the Justice Department’s announcement.
“I learned in a press release from the Attorney General tonight that I was ‘stepping down’ as United States Attorney. I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning,” he announced in a statement shortly after 11 p.m. Friday. He showed up for work Saturday morning, telling reporters he was doing his job.
He explained he was appointed by Manhattan federal judges and wouldn’t budge until a successor was confirmed by Congress.
“Our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption,” he promised.
Barr waited until midafternoon Saturday to respond in a way that mimicked what happened to Bharara.
“Unfortunately, with your statement of last night, you have chosen public spectacle over public service,” Barr wrote a day after meeting Berman in Manhattan and offering him other jobs. “Because you have declared that you have no intention of resigning, I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so.”
By dinnertime, Berman had said he would leave his job, saying in light of Barr’s decision to “respect the normal operation of law” and ask the deputy U.S. attorney to step in, he’d go immediately.
The extraordinary standoff between the Justice Department and Berman then ended Saturday when the prosecutor agreed to leave his job with an assurance that his investigations into allies of President Donald Trump would not be disturbed.
The announcement capped two days of conflicting statements, allegations of political interference in prosecutions, and defiance from Berman. On Saturday, Attorney General William Barr said Berman’s refusal to resign under pressure prompted Trump to fire him. Trump tried to distance himself from the dispute, telling reporters the decision “was all up to the attorney general.”
This episode deepened tensions between the Justice Department and congressional Democrats, who have accused Barr of politicizing the agency and acting more like Trump’s personal lawyer than the country’s chief law enforcement officer. It also raised questions about ongoing investigations in the Southern District of New York, most notably a probe into Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney.
Although Barr said Trump had removed Berman, the president told reporters: “That’s all up to the attorney general. Attorney General Barr is working on that. That’s his department, not my department.” Trump added: “I wasn’t involved.”
The administration’s push to cast aside Berman amounted to a political and constitutional clash between the Justice Department and one of the nation’s top districts, which has tried major mob, financial crimes and terrorism cases over the years.
Only days ago, allegations surfaced from former Trump national security adviser John Bolton that the president sought to interfere in an investigation by Berman’s office into the state-owned Turkish bank in an effort to cut deals with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Berman initially vowed to stay on the job until a replacement was confirmed. He changed his mind late Saturday after Barr said he would allow Berman’s second in command, Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss, to become acting U.S. attorney.
Berman said Strauss’ appointment signaled that Barr had decided “to respect the normal operation of law.” He said he was stepping down immediately.
The administration’s efforts to replace Berman with a handpicked replacement, however, were already running into roadblocks before Barr agreed to install Strauss.
After announcing Berman’s resignation, the White House said it was nominating Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton, a well-connected Wall Street lawyer with virtually no experience as a federal prosecutor, for the job.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a close Trump ally, said he was unlikely to proceed with Clayton’s nomination unless New York’s senators, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, gave their consent to the pick.
Schumer said the bid to oust Berman “reeks of potential corruption of the legal process,” and Gillibrand said she would “not be complicit” in helping fire a prosecutor investigating corruption. Both lawmakers called for Clayton to withdraw from consideration.
Schumer also called for the department’s inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate Berman’s ouster. And the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said Berman has an open invitation to testify before his panel.
Berman, a Republican who contributed to the president’s election campaign, worked for the same law firm as Giuliani and was personally interviewed by Trump before being tapped as U.S. attorney. But he won over some skeptics after overseeing numerous prosecutions and investigations with ties to Trump.
Though Berman is said to be unclear about the exact reason he was fired, people familiar with his thinking said his job had always seemed in jeopardy and he never had the sense it was secure.
Among the most high profile investigations he was overseeing was into Giuliani’s business dealings, including whether he failed to register as a foreign agent. Charges in the case do not appear imminent, according to people familiar with the matter. They were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Southern District has also prosecuted a number of Trump associates, including Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who served a prison sentence for lying to Congress and campaign finance crimes. Cohen was recently released from a federal prison to continue serving his sentence on home confinement over coronavirus concerns.
Berman has overseen the prosecution of two Florida businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were associates of Giuliani and tied to the Ukraine impeachment investigation. The men were charged in October with federal campaign finance violations, including hiding the origin of a $325,000 donation to a group supporting Trump’s reelection.
Under Berman’s tenure, his office also brought charges against Michael Avenatti, the combative lawyer who gained fame by representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in lawsuits involving Trump. Avenatti was convicted in February of trying to extort Nike after prosecutors said he threatened to use his media access to hurt Nike’s reputation and stock price unless the sportswear giant paid him up to $25 million.
Since Berman was appointed in early January 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his job security has always seemed precarious. A few months into his work, Manhattan judges appointed him permanently because Trump never formally nominated him.
Although he was recused from the prosecution of Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, he proceeded with other probes surely drawing interest from the president, including an insider trading prosecution of the first member of Congress to endorse Trump in 2016 and probes of Trump’s inaugural fundraising and efforts abroad on the president’s behalf by Giuliani.
“The most surprising thing is that he’s held on as long as he has,” said Danya Perry, a former Manhattan federal prosecutor who recently represented California lawyer Michael Avenatti in his recent fraud trial defense.
She said prosecutors were naturally anxious after the Justice Department statement saying he’d stepped down was released.
“It was immediately clear to anyone who knows anything about this world that he had not decided to step down, that he had been shown the door,” she said. “Everyone was watching and waiting for his response and were so gratified that he hit back hard in the finest traditions of the office and said: ‘Not so fast, we’re going to keep doing the good work that we do and you’re going to have to actually follow the specific law here.'”
The Southern District of New York is known for drawing top talent that has targeted Wall Street executives, suspected terrorists and prominent government officials. Its work has even been fictionalized on the popular Showtime series “Billions.”
“It’s a young, aggressive, hardworking group of lawyers who know they’re not there for a very long time,” said Michael Bromwich, an alumnus of the office and former Justice Department inspector general. “They’re not fat, happy and contented. They’re eager to do the work that they came there to do. And they’re ambitious.”
In his 2018 memoir, Comey described receiving a call at home one month after the Sept. 11 attacks with an offer to become the U.S. attorney. As he broke the news to his wife, he wrote, her eyes welled up and she told him, “You can’t say no.”
In fact, he said yes, and went on to oversee one of the most headline-making prosecutions of its time — a false statements case against famous homemaker Martha Stewart.
The office’s alumni in Washington regularly meet up for casual gatherings, departing prosecutors are roasted in raucous, private gatherings, and hundreds gathered for a gala affair in 2014 in Manhattan.
In a testament to the office’s prestige, Bromwich recalled a speech that Giuliani delivered to prosecutors in the office after arriving there in 1983 following a stint as associate attorney general, the No. 3 position in the Justice Department.
With a knowing look in his eye, Bromwich said, Giuliani boasted: “This is not just any U.S. attorney’s office. This is the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, and I view this as a promotion — not a demotion.”
Tucker reported from Washington.