Scores of former Justice Department officials had already called for Barr to quit over a series of interventions that appear specifically designed to benefit Trump politically. Berman’s refusal to go quietly meanwhile set off a new crisis and governmental showdown for an already reeling administration that is struggling to cope with a pandemic, a consequent economic crisis and a national reckoning on race.
The President had been thinking of removing Berman for two years and believes that the investigation into Giuliani is an attempt to damage him politically, two sources told CNN’s Kevin Liptak. But Friday night’s dramatic events stoke fresh intrigue of exactly why Barr and Trump are suddenly so keen to oust Berman — a Trump donor who was installed by the Trump administration in 2018 — less than five months before the election.
Berman, before walking into his office in downtown New York Saturday morning, told reporters, “I issued a statement last night, I have nothing to add to that this morning. I’m just here to do my job.”
Fundamentally, the episode reveals the extent to which a President with authoritarian impulses, who has worked constantly to challenge the justice system’s independence and sought to force it to act in his own personal interests, is prepared to act with impunity in the wake of his Senate acquittal by fellow Republicans on impeachment charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The President has meanwhile gutted top leadership of the FBI and the Justice Department in a way that suggests political motivation. More recently he has threatened to send regular troops into the streets to confront anti-racism demonstrations. And he has conducted a purge against inspectors general who are independent watchdog officials in government departments.
A ‘Friday Night Massacre’?
Extraordinary events over the fate of Berman were the latest disturbing echo of former Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” when the then-President ordered his attorney general to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox at the height of the Watergate scandal.
Late on Friday evening — the traditional dumping ground for controversial news stories — Barr issued a press release announcing Berman’s sudden resignation that said that he would be replaced by Jay Clayton, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who has never served as a prosecutor.
On its own, Barr’s move was shocking since the Southern District of New York is one of the most prestigious and independent prosecutorial perches and typically handles highly sensitive financial, politically sensitive and terrorism cases.
The New York federal prosecutor’s office is also working on a number of cases to which it was referred by Mueller when he wrapped up his investigation into whether the Trump campaign knowingly cooperated with Russia’s election interference operation. It named the President as “Individual-1” in its case against Cohen saying he directed campaign finance offenses related to the paying of hush money to several women who said they had affairs with Trump.
The attempted firing of Berman ignited another conflagration in Washington with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, immediately announcing a hearing for Wednesday and inviting Berman to testify.
“America is right to expect the worst of Bill Barr, who has repeatedly interfered in criminal investigations on Trump’s behalf,” Nadler said in a statement.
CNN legal analyst Laura Coates said late Friday that if it looked as though Barr was facilitating actions that would “undermine the expedience … or going forward of any cases it adds another log to the fire for people burning about their problems with this attorney general and his inability to boost or really contribute to morale and career prosecutors’ ability to do their job.”
Berman refuses to go
“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, my position, to which I was appointed by the Judges of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York,” Berman said.
“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. The chances of a new US Attorney for the Southern District of New York being confirmed much before the election seem slim and there is the possibility of legal battles over Berman’s tenure.
CNN legal analyst Paul Callan said: “I think the President is going to have a great deal of difficulty in forcing Mr. Berman out of office because he came in under strange circumstances.”
Berman’s reference to those investigations immediately posed the question of whether he was speaking specifically about the general work of his department or to any cases that might interest Barr and Trump specifically.
His defiance left next steps unclear but at the very least spoke to the remarkable chaos unleashed in the Justice Department under Trump which has intensified ever since Barr took over.
The administration discussed replacing Berman with Ed O’Callaghan, a senior official last fall but the move was put on hold after prosecutor’s indicted Guiliani’s associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, sources said.
CNN’s Erica Orden, Evan Perez, Kara Scannell and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.