Geoffrey S. Berman, United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks to reporters as he arrives to his office in New York on Saturday, June 20.

Geoffrey S. Berman, United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, speaks to reporters as he arrives to his office in New York on Saturday, June 20. Kevin Hagen/AP

Top Senate Democrat Asks for Probe of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Removal

Request comes as the House will hear on Wednesday from Justice officials on supposed politicization of the department.

On Monday, the top Senate Democrat asked the Justice Department and its watchdog to investigate the controversial shakeup at the Southern District of New York over the weekend. 

On Friday night, President Trump announced his intent to nominate Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton to be U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The Justice Department issued a statement saying U.S. attorney Geoffrey Berman would be “stepping down,” but Berman pushed back saying he had no such plans, which he said he first learned of in the department’s press release. 

“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. 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. 

This led to confusion over the weekend over whose decision it was to replace Berman—Trump’s or Barr’s—and the legal basis to do so. As the New York Times has reported, normally a government official can be fired by whoever appoints him. But Berman was appointed by a federal court, not Barr or the president. He initially was appointed by Barr’s predecessor Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but when Berman’s temporary appointment expired after 120 days with no permanent replacement, a federal court appointed him to the position. 

After Berman refused to step down, Barr said in a letter on Saturday that Trump had fired Berman for choosing “public spectacle over public service.” But Barr, in an apparent effort to mollify Berman and avoid a court battle, also stated that Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss would serve as the acting U.S. attorney, after which Berman agreed to vacate the office immediately. Trump, on Barr’s recommendation, had initially tapped Craig Carpenito, U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey to serve in Berman’s stead. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a letter to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz and Office Professional Responsibility Director and Chief Counsel Jeffrey Ragsdale outlining his concerns about the situation. 

“I ask that you review the reason for the removal of the U.S. Attorney Berman and whether he was removed for partisan political purposes, to influence an investigation or prosecution, or to retaliate for his actions in any specific investigation or prosecution,” Schumer wrote. “This corrupt firing cannot be explained by cause and gives the impression that the president interfered in ongoing criminal investigations into himself and his associates.” 

The Justice IG’s office declined to comment. The Justice Department said it received the letter and declined to comment further. 

The Southern District of New York has been involved in various Trump-related probes, including spending and donations by the Trump inaugural committee, prosecution of the president’s former attorney and legal fixer Michael Cohen and an inquiry into the president’s current personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani over his business dealings in Ukraine.

The district also indicted a state-owned Turkish bank last year for evading sanctions against Iran. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton told ABC News on Sunday there was possible “obstruction of justice” by the president because he reportedly told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in December 2018, “Look, those prosecutors in New York are Obama people. Wait till I get my people in and then we'll take care of this."

Also, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that the day before he was removed, Berman refused to sign a Justice Department letter that criticized New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s enforcement of social distancing rules for religious gatherings, but not protests for racial justice and police reform. “Barr didn’t have a direct role in discussions with Mr. Berman over the letter,” which was never sent, but “Berman’s refusal aggravated Mr. Barr, who already viewed Mr. Berman as obstinate and difficult to work with,” according to the report. 

The Manhattan shakeup happened a few days after Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., House Judiciary Committee chairman, subpoenaed two Justice officials to testify on June 24 about the “unprecedented politicization” of the department under the Trump administration. 

One official, Aaron Zelinsky, was one of the four career prosecutors to withdraw from former Trump advisor Roger Stone’s case in February after political appointees overruled their sentencing recommendation following criticism from the president. The move was largely unprecedented  and could hinder morale across the career workforce, according to former prosecutors. John Elias, the other witness, is a career official in the department’s Antitrust division who will talk about its “improperly motivated activity,” according to Nadler.

Schumer noted in his letter that the offices did a similar investigation following the dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 by President George W. Bush’s Justice Department. 

They found the removals “severely damaged the credibility of the department” in a 392-page report published in September 2008. “We believe that this investigation, and final resolution of the issues raised in this report, can help restore confidence in the department by fully describing the serious failures in the process used to remove the U.S. Attorneys and by providing lessons for the department in how to avoid such failures in the future.”