After a Friday night fiasco, it now looks like Trump has succeeded in firing U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, the prosecutor who put Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, in jail and who is investigating his current personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and a number of other cases involving Trump administration misconduct. While Berman resisted when Attorney General Barr tried to finesse the firing on Friday night, he acquiesced when Trump himself (maybe) issued the order on Saturday. The whole episode looks unnervingly like Nixon’s Saturday night massacre, when he fired prosecutors conducting the Watergate investigation.
Late Friday night, Attorney General William Barr kicked off the fiasco with a late-evening announcement that Geoffrey Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was “stepping down” and would be replaced by Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who has zero prosecutorial experience.
Berman fired back, with a tweeted statement:
“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. 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. I cherish every day that I work with the men and women of this Office to pursue justice without fear or favor – and intend to ensure that this Office’s important cases continue unimpeded.”
At a minimum, that statement outed Barr as a liar.
For a short time, that statement also gave hope that Berman would continue to pursue his office’s prosecutions and investigations including:
- bank fraud and money laundering charges against a Turkish bank that Trump opposed;
- ongoing investigation of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, in connection with involvement with foreign governments;
- prosecutions and convictions of close Trump advisers George Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Rick Gates and others;
- conviction of Michael Cohen for lying to Congress;
- ongoing investigations of Trump’s personal business dealings and plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and related business dealings;
- ongoing investigations of tax fraud and illegal campaign contributions, including a payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about their affair with Trump.
Berman is a Republican who contributed the legal maximum to Trump’s campaign and was named as interim U.S. Attorney in 2018. Trump has said he prefers to make interim or temporary appointments because it gives him more control over the persons he appoints. In this case, the maneuver backfired. Because Trump sent no nomination to the Senate within 120 days, the judges of the U.S. District Court appointed Berman to the position. That is why the Attorney General did not have authority to fire him.
The president, however, might have that authority.
On Saturday afternoon, Barr said that Trump had now personally fired Berman. Trump told reporters that he did not, and that he was “not involved.”
Then Berman said he would leave office rather than continuing to fight his dismissal, “In light of Attorney General Barr’s decision to respect the normal operation of law and have Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss become Acting U.S. Attorney.” Berman praised Strauss as “the smartest, most principled, and effective lawyer with whom I have ever had the privilege of working.”
So, twenty-four hours after Barr kicked off this whole fiasco, who won?
Not Berman, who first looked. strong and then backed down and left the scene.
Not Barr, who looks even less competent and more corrupt than he did before Friday.
Not Trump, who doesn’t even know whether he fired Berman.
And definitely not the country, which not only loses continuity of leadership in important prosecutions, but also sees an increased threat level against anyone who dares to investigate or expose the corruption of this administration.
I only hope that, as in Nixon’s Saturday night massacre, this action ultimately fails to stop the exceedingly, excruciatingly, painfully slow wheels of justice.