“Unfortunately, with your statement of last night, you have chosen public spectacle over public service,” Barr continued. “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.”
Barr wrote that Berman’s top deputy, Audrey Strauss, will take over as temporary head of the office “until a permanent successor is in place.” Barr’s statement last night, however, said New Jersey U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito would take over the office.
White House officials have not responded to requests for comment on the unusual showdown between the attorney general and Berman, whose office has a long tradition of relative independence from Justice Department headquarters in Washington.
Barr and Berman have long had an adversarial relationship, but Friday night’s bungled ouster attempt still stunned longtime DOJ observers. Berman’s office handled a number of investigations and prosecutions linked to Trump and his associates, including the case against Trump’s ex-consigliere Michael Cohen and investigations that scrutinized the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and his inaugural committee.
Recently, the office made international news for sparring with Prince Andrew in an effort to secure the British royal’s testimony for an investigation involving the activities of deceased pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
Strauss’s installation will likely shield the department from allegations that DOJ headquarters fired Berman in hopes of immediately installing a political lackey or to shut down ongoing investigations. Public records show she has made political contributions to both Republicans and Democrats over the years, including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. She worked in the Southern District for a stint from 1976 to 1983, according to her official bio, and also worked for the independent counsel who investigated the Iran Contra scandal.
Berman was seen heading into the SDNY offices on Saturday, telling reporters he had nothing to say beyond Friday’s statement, in which he vowed to continue the office’s current probes and said he would leave only when a permanent replacement was confirmed by the Senate.
Berman’s ouster comes days after a forthcoming memoir by former national security adviser John Bolton claimed that Trump once sought to remove prosecutors at the Southern District at the behest of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Trump made the commitment during a summer 2019 phone call with the Turkish strongman, who had asked the U.S. president to lean on the Justice Department to drop its prosecution of Halkbank, a Turkish bank accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
“Of course, this was all nonsense,” Bolton wrote, “since the prosecutors were career Justice Department employees, who would have proceeded the same way if the Halkbank investigation started in the eighth year of Trump’s presidency rather than the eighth year of Obama’s.”
Halkbank, which stands accused of laundering billions for the sanctioned Iranian regime, pleaded not guilty in March following a federal indictment.
Democrats have decried Berman’s removal, denouncing the move as a blow to the rule of law. Rep. Jarrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) on Friday invited the ousted U.S. Attorney to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.
But as of Saturday, it was not clear how Berman planned to respond to Barr’s latest statement; legal scholars noted that the fact that he was appointed by judges rather than by the president himself likely means that only the president could remove him. That was the conclusion of a 1979 memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
The fate of Clayton’s nomination is also uncertain. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, said Saturday he had not heard from the Trump administration about its plans to replace Berman but praised Clayton as “a fine man and accomplished lawyer.”
However, Graham (R-S.C.) indicated he would defer to the Senate’s “blue slip” tradition, in which individual senators may effectively block the nomination of someone who hails from their home state. That would empower Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to stop Clayton from advancing through the Judiciary Committee — and Schumer has already indicated he thinks Clayton should withdraw from consideration.
“Forty seven years ago, Elliott Richardson had the courage to say no to a gross abuse of presidential power,” Schumer said Saturday, invoking the Nixon-era prosecutor. “Jay Clayton has a similar choice today: He can allow himself to be used in the brazen Trump-Barr scheme to interfere in investigations by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, or he can stand up to this corruption, withdraw his name from consideration, and save his own reputation from overnight ruin.”
Not long after Schumer, New York’s other senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, similarly called on Clayton to withdraw. “I will not be complicit in helping President Trump and Attorney General Barr fire a U.S. attorney who is reportedly investigating corruption in this administration,” Gillibrand said in a statement.
Kyle Cheney contributed reporting.