There was a Friday night news dump that came as a surprise to many people. If you keep up with any of the Trump news on a weekly basis, you’re probably already familiar with the name of Geoffrey Berman. He’s the Southern District U.S. Attorney from Manhattan who has been launching one investigation after another into anyone and everyone associated with President Trump in New York on the off chance that he finds some dirt to dig up. That’s why it came as something of a shock to find out from Attorney General Bill Barr last night that Berman was stepping down, particularly this close to the election. Barr said that the current head of the SEC would be replacing Berman in the post. (NBC News)
Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, plans to step down and President Donald Trump will nominate the current chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission to succeed him, Attorney General William Barr announced Friday evening.
Berman’s resignation was not expected, and word of the move caught senior officials in his office off guard. His office prosecuted of former Trump confidante Michael Cohen, though he was recused from involvement in the case. And he was overseeing the investigation of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s business activities.
Barr went on to actually shower some praise on Berman, saying that he had “done an excellent job leading one of our nation’s most significant U.S. attorney’s offices, achieving many successes on consequential civil and criminal matters.” That was unexpected, particularly when you consider how hard the man has been going after Rudy Giuliani and numerous other Trump associates in the Big Apple.
But it wasn’t just the media who was “surprised” by the announcement. Allegedly, nobody told Berman that he was “resigning.” Shortly after Barr finished speaking, the U.S. Attorney went out on social media and declared that he was not, in fact, stepping down and the whole affair was news to him. (NY Post)
In a stunning plot twist, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman issued a statement Friday night asserting that he will not, in fact, resign — in direct contradiction to an announcement that he was stepping down made hours earlier from Attorney General William Barr.
“I learned in a press release from the Attorney General tonight that I was ‘stepping down’ as United States Attorney,” Berman said in a statement posted to the Southern District of New York Twitter account.
“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’s statement continued.
So, assuming Berman is being honest about this (which we’ll get to in a moment), he’s not “stepping down.” He’s being fired. He can’t technically refuse to leave the office because all U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President. If Trump says he’s fired, he’s fired. But all he’s really saying is that he’ll stick around until the Senate confirms Jay Clayton. Given how long that might take, Trump and Barr may turn up the heat and force him out sooner. If nothing else, that would be good for a couple of headlines where Trump gets to show he’s in charge and won’t be putting up with any nonsense, which is pretty much his brand.
Would President Trump really order the AG to fire a U.S. Attorney who’s been investigating him on his finances, his business partners, his personal attorney, and even the details behind some sanctions on Turkey? Obviously. That’s just another day ending in a Y for Trump. I’m sure President Trump has heard the old saying about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, but he clearly doesn’t buy into it. Still, given how this rolled out, something here doesn’t pass the smell test for me.
If this was a traditional transition during a traditional administration, Barr would have spoken to Berman in advance. Probably not too much in advance because you don’t want him getting out in front of the story, but he’d have been told. But whether he was or he wasn’t, things shouldn’t have played out this way. If Berman was being fired for cause, why would Barr specifically say he was “stepping down” and go on to praise what a good job he’s been doing? No, he would have made an announcement that the President (or Barr himself, if wanted to make it look like Trump’s fingerprints weren’t all over this) had decided to make a change. He could have thanked him for his service without going on to heap praise on him. If that’s how it had played out, Berman could legitimately say he’d been blindsided.
Second possibility. Barr actually did send word to Berman’s office that he was being let go, probably not long before the announcement. But Berman decides that whichever aide took the call “failed to get the message to him” so he gets to go out and complain about being blindsided and what a bully Trump is, suggesting that he’s doing this to try to quash all of the investigations into his affairs. At this point he’s got nothing else to lose, so he might as well get in some parting shots, right?
But if Barr didn’t have a personal acknowledgment from Berman that he knew he was being let go, why make the announcement the way he did? He’s obviously opening the door for Berman to turn this into several news cycles worth of lousy headlines for the President and Barr comes off looking like he’s in the middle of some sort of conspiracy to eliminate Trump’s enemies. If that’s how this played out, then somebody in Barr’s office screwed the pooch majorly on this one.
No matter what the truth is in terms of what was going on behind the scenes, this is a clear example of just how far the relationship between Trump, the leadership at the Justice Department and the disparate U.S. Attorneys offices around the country has degraded. Trump is always at his best when he’s going to war with somebody and if a suitable enemy doesn’t present themself, he’ll find one. In this case, it turned out to be Berman. The big questions now are whether or not Cocaine Mitch can get Clayton approved in a timely fashion and if he’ll turn out to be more of a Trump loyalist or turn into yet another wildcard.