In a letter denouncing U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, 135 former New York prosecutors write that U.S. Attorney Geoff Berman’s dismissal undermines “confidence in the criminal justice system.”
U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, the top federal prosecutor in one of the most influential U.S. district courts, is without a job this Monday after a weekend power struggle over respecting process in the U.S. justice system ensued.
As many as 135 former New York prosecutors have signed a letter defending Berman, who served in the Southern District of New York, and denouncing U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr for firing him.
“The impartial administration of Justice is what distinguishes the United States from authoritarian regimes around the world and is fundamental to our democracy,” the letter said. “The President and the Attorney General have put this long and important tradition at risk.”
Here’s how it all happened:
1. Late Friday night, news broke from the U.S. Justice Department that Berman was resigning from his position as a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) court. Barr nominated current SEC Chairman Jay Clayton—who lacks the traditional experience seen fit for that role—to replace Berman.
The news came as a surprise in a press release, sending waves through political and law circles.
Preet Bharara, who formerly held Berman’s position and was fired in 2017 after refusing to resign under U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions’ orders, chimed in a tweet: “Why does a president get rid of his own hand-picked US Attorney in SDNY on a Friday night, less than 5 months before the election?”
2. Berman responded in a statement from the court on Friday night: “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…” He said he hoped “the Office’s important cases continue unimpeded.”
The SDNY court—which gets a mention in John Bolton’s new book because Trump allegedly told Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that prosecutors there “were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people”—is known for being aggressive and non-partisan in taking on high-profile investigations. In fact, Berman and Barr have recently sparred over defending SDNY’s independence.
The Court’s most recent cases have implicated members of President Trump’s circle, including Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen. The court is also investigating former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani for foreign lobbying violations regarding digging up negative information on Trump political rivals in Ukraine, and the Trump inaugural committee on potentially accepting illegal foreign contributions.
3. It was later revealed that Barr and Berman had a meeting in New York Friday afternoon and the two did not discuss resigning—but Berman was reportedly offered a job in the Department of Justice.
4. On Saturday, Barr sent a statement declaring to Berman, “I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so.”
5. When Trump was asked by the press about the firing, he said: “I’m not involved.” He told reporters that the decision was “all up to the attorney general.”
6. On Saturday night, Berman relented and said he would be leaving his position immediately, given that Barr “respect[ed] the normal operation of law.”
The SDNY statement said deputy U.S. attorney Audrey Strauss will fill in as acting U.S. attorney for the court.
It’s still unclear why Barr wanted to dismiss Berman.
Former prosecutors of New York have called his firing a serious undermining of justice—and interference in what is supposed to be an objective process and system. In their letter, they called it an “attack on the concept that investigations should be conducted in a nonpartisan manner.”
Trump and Barr “are politicizing an office that for more than 200 years has remained apolitical, and are undermining confidence in our criminal justice system,” they write. “We call on our elected officials – Republicans and Democrats alike – to take all appropriate action to protect the administration of justice in the Southern District of New York and elsewhere from this kind of political interference.”