US attorney denies stepping down, vows to continue probe of Trump allies
WASHINGTON: The Justice Department abruptly announced late Friday that the U.S. attorney who was was overseeing an investigation into President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer was resigning. But he disputes that, saying he was staying on the job and his probes would continue.
Attorney General William Barr said in a statement that Geoffrey S. Berman was stepping down as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. The office is one of the nation’s top districts, trying major mob cases and terror cases over the years.
But Berman said in a statement later that he’d learned he was stepping down from a press release.
“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,” he said.
Barr’s announcement came after he visited New York City, and no reason was given for the abrupt departure. It was followed by a statement from the White House nominating the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission to the job, a lawyer with virtually no experience as a federal prosecutor.
It comes days after allegations surfaced from former Trump national security adviser John Bolton that Trump sought to interfere in an Southern District investigation into the Turkish Halkbank in an effort to cut deals with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“Doesn’t sound like ‘stepping down,’” Preet Bharara, the previous permanent U.S. attorney there, said in a tweet Friday. “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?”
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.
Before taking the reins at the SEC, Clayton was a well-connected Wall Street lawyer who represented and advised a number of major companies, including Goldman Sachs, Barclays, Deutsche Bank and UBS.
The 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. He had recused himself from directly overseeing the Cohen investigation for reasons that were never disclosed.
Berman has also 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.
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. The people were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Bolton’s tell-all, excerpts of which were posted by the news media this week, included details on how Trump sought to cut a deal to halt SDNY’s investigation into whether Halkbank violated U.S. sanctions against Iran in order to free an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey. Six weeks after the pastor’s release, Bolton writes that on a call with Erdoğan, “Trump then told Erdoğan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people.” The episode occurred months after Berman assumed the role of U.S. attorney.
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. But as U.S. attorney, he won over some skeptics after he went after Trump allies.
Berman was appointed by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January 2018, months after Bharara was fired after refusing to resign along with dozens of other federal prosecutors appointed by President Barack Obama.
Three months later, FBI agents raided Cohen’s offices, an act the president decried as a politically motivated witch hunt.
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.
On Friday, he appeared to challenge Barr’s power to remove him from office because he was appointed to the job by federal judges. Under federal law, a U.S. attorney who is appointed by district court judges can serve “until the vacancy is filled.”
The question is likely to become a matter of legal dispute.
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. Collins, who represented western New York, has since resigned.
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.