Trump fires federal prosecutor investigating his own inner circle, attorney general says

Fresh twist after attorney general claimed Geoffrey Berman had resigned – only for him to say he had not and had not intention of doing so

Chris Riotta
New York
Saturday 20 June 2020 21:47 BST
Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he leaves the White House to travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma for his first rally in three months
Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he leaves the White House to travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma for his first rally in three months (Getty Images)

Attorney general William Barr escalated a tense standoff between the Justice Department and one of the most powerful investigative offices in the nation on Saturday, claiming that Donald Trump had ordered the firing of a federal prosecutor who was investigating the president's allies, only for Mr Trump to later deny he was involved.

The development added another layer of confusion to the fate of US attorney Geoffrey Berman, who has been spearheading investigations into Mr Trump's inner circle.

Following the latest intervention, Mr Berman agreed to step down.

In a shock announcement late on Friday, Mr Barr claimed Mr Berman was resigning. Mr Berman quickly responded to the announcement, saying he had not quit his post and would remain in the position.

That prompted another letter from the attorney general on Saturday, in which he said he had asked the president to fire Mr Berman, which he had.

Geoffrey Berman, who was fired from his position as US attorney for the Southern District of New York while investigating members of Donald Trump's inner circle (AP)

“I was surprised and quite disappointed by the press statement you released last night,” the attorney general wrote to Mr Berman on Saturday. “As we discussed, I wanted the opportunity to choose a distinguished New York lawyer, Jay Clayton, to nominate as United states attorney and was hoping for your cooperation to facilitate a smooth transition.”

He added: “Unfortunately, with your statement of last night, you have chosen public spectacle over public service. 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.”

When asked about the firing just hours later, however, Mr Trump said he was "not involved" and that it was up to the attorney general.

Mr Berman's refusal to accept Mr Barr's unusual attempts to fire him sparked an extraordinary standoff with the justice department.

“I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate,” he said. “Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption.”

However, following Mr Barr's statement that the president was firing him, Mr Berman conceded he was leaving his post. He issued a statement saying: "In light of [AG] Barr's decision to respect the normal operation of law & have Deputy US Attorney Audrey Strauss become Acting US Attorney, I will be leaving the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, effective immediately."

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee said they were immediately opening an investigation into how Mr Berman came to be removed from his post.

Committee chairman Jerry Nadler was quoted by CNN as saying the inquiry would be "part of our broader investigation into Barr's unacceptable politicisation of the Department of Justice".

Under Mr Berman’s leadership, the office indicted Mr Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen on campaign finance violations, as well as associates to the president’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Recent reports have said the US attorney's office was leading an investigation into Mr Giuliani over potential campaign finance violations.

Mr Barr claimed the US attorney’s statement “wrongly implies” that his “continued tenure in the office is necessary to ensure that cases now pending in the Southern District of New York are handled appropriately” but that “this is obviously false”.

The attorney general wants to fill the vacancy with Mr Clayton, who Democrats have already called on to step down from the nomination process.

Mr Clayton, who Mr Barr has tapped to lead the investigative office, holds no prosecutorial experience. If appointed, he would become the first non-prosecutor to spearhead the SDNY.

The president claimed on Saturday he had nothing to do with Mr Berman's firing, and that it was up to his attorney general whether the US attorney would remain in his post.

"That's all up to the attorney general," he said when asked by a reporter about the firing while on his way to a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "Attorney General Bill Barr is working on that. That's his department, not my department. But we have a really capable attorney general, so that's really up to him. I'm not involved."

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