20 June 2020 10:31
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. federal prosecutor whose office has been investigating Rudolph W. Giuliani, the personal lawyer of U.S. President Donald Trump, said on Friday evening he would not leave his position, hours after the Trump administration abruptly said it was replacing him. The unusual statement by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, Geoffrey Berman, sets up a dramatic confrontation within the Justice Department over the high-profile position in a year when Trump is seeking reelection. Berman leads an office known for prosecuting high-profile terrorism cases, Wall Street financial crimes and government corruption. I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning my position, to which I was appointed by the Judges of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York" (SDNY), Berman said in a statement.
Berman said that until a presidentially appointed nominee was confirmed by the Senate, the office's "investigations will move forward without delay or interruption." The statement came just hours after Attorney General William Barr in a surprise move said in a press release that Trump intends to nominate Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton, a former corporate lawyer, to replace Berman. A Justice Department official, asked about Berman's refusal to leave the post until a successor is confirmed, told Reuters the "timeline remains the same" as Barr had laid out in announcing the replacement. While the Senate considers Clayton's nomination, Trump has appointed Craig Carpenito, currently the U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, to serve as the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District, Barr said in his statement. Berman had replaced Preet Bharara, who was himself fired soon after Trump became president. Bharara said the timing and manner of the move to replace Berman was strange.
"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 on Twitter. Berman was never confirmed by the Senate, the usual process for appointing U.S. Attorneys. Rather, he was appointed by the judges of the Southern District of New York. "The Attorney General has known Jay Clayton for years and holds him in high regard," the Justice Department official said, on condition of anonymity. The official said that Clayton, who had been planning to leave the administration and return to New York, "expressed interest" in the U.S. Attorney role in New York, and Barr "thought it was a good idea." The Justice Department moved abruptly Friday to oust Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan overseeing key prosecutions of President Trump's allies and an investigation of his personal lawyer Rudolph W. But Berman said he was refusing to leave his post and his investigations would continue. "I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position," Berman said. Gen. William Barr said Berman was stepping down. The standoff set off an extraordinary clash between the Justice Department and one of the nation's top U.S. attorney offices, which has tried major mob and terrorism cases over the years. It is also likely to deepen tensions between the Justice Department and congressional Democrats, who have pointedly accused Barr of politicizing the agency and acting more like Trump's personal lawyer than the nation's chief law enforcement officer. The move to oust Berman came days after allegations surfaced in a book from former Trump national security advisor John Bolton that the president sought to interfere in an investigation into a state-owned Turkish bank in an effort to cut deals with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The White House quickly announced that Trump was nominating the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission to the job, a lawyer with virtually no experience as a federal prosecutor. Hours later, Berman issued his own statement saying he had learned that he was being pushed out through media reports. "Doesn't sound like 'stepping down,'" Preet Bharara, the previous U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a tweet Friday. "Why does a president get rid of his own hand-picked U.S. attorney in SDNY on a Friday night, less than 5 months before the election?" Trump intends to nominate SEC Chairman Jay Clayton to the post, Barr said. The U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, will serve as the acting U.S. attorney in Manhattan beginning July 3, he said. The New York office has 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, and has also been investigating Giuliani and his associates. Federal prosecutors in New York are investigating Giuliani's business dealings, including whether he failed to register as a foreign agent, according to people familiar with the probe. Berman has taken a direct hand in other investigations that have angered Trump. Bolton's tell-all, excerpts of which were posted by the media this week, included details on how Trump sought to cut a deal to halt the Southern District of New York's investigation into whether Halkbank violated U.S. sanctions against Iran in order to free an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey. A Republican who contributed to the president's election campaign, Berman worked for the same law firm as Giuliani and was put in his job by the Trump administration. Gen. Jeff Sessions in January 2018, months after Bharara was fired after refusing to resign along with dozens of other federal prosecutors appointed by President Obama. The following April, in the absence of a formal nomination by Trump, the judges in Manhattan federal court voted to appoint Berman to the position permanently. He has taken a direct hand in other investigations that have angered Trump. His office subpoenaed Trump's inaugural committee for a wide range of documents as part of an investigation into various potential crimes, including possible illegal contributions from foreigners to inaugural events. And weeks before the 2018 midterm election, Berman announced insider trading charges against an ardent Trump supporter, Republican Rep. Chris Collins. 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.