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Top Manhattan Prosecutor Ousted by Trump Details Firing

2020-07-09 23:07:13

Geoffrey S. Berman, whom President Trump abruptly dismissed last month as the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, told lawmakers on Thursday that Attorney General William P. Barr tried unsuccessfully to pressure him to resign voluntarily, warning that being fired could ruin his career.

Testifying privately before the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Berman recounted being summoned with no warning in June to a meeting with Mr. Barr at the Pierre Hotel in New York. The attorney general asked him to step down and offered him prominent government posts if he would do so. Mr. Berman said he rebuffed Mr. Barr time and again during what he described as a tense, 45-minute discussion, telling him he would not resign and he did not want to be fired.

Mr. Barr repeatedly tried to change Mr. Berman’s mind, he testified, warning “that getting fired from my job would not be good for my résumé or future job prospects.”

“I told the attorney general that there were important investigations in the office that I wanted to see through to completion,” Mr. Berman told the committee members.

In prepared testimony released by the committee and under subsequent questioning, Mr. Berman declined to address Mr. Barr’s motive for his dismissal as the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, or to discuss the highly sensitive corruption investigations of members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle that his office oversaw.

But under questioning, Mr. Berman called the attorney general’s actions irregular and said they raised serious concerns in his mind. He told lawmakers that he believed that Mr. Barr’s plan to replace him with an outsider would “delay and disrupt” important cases under his watch. And when asked specifically by Republicans whether Mr. Barr had offered him a quid pro quo, he said he believed the description would fit an offer of a job in return for his resignation, according to three people familiar with the testimony who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was private.

Mr. Barr’s critics have contended that the attorney general was acting based on Mr. Trump’s distaste for Mr. Berman and the sensitive inquiries involving the president that his office oversaw.

Mr. Berman’s office sent Michael D. Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and fixer, to prison, and has been investigating Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s current lawyer.

Mr. Berman’s appearance on Capitol Hill on Thursday was part of a broader inquiry by House Democrats into what they consider attempts by Mr. Barr to politicize the administration of justice.

Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and the committee’s chairman, said after the session on Thursday that Mr. Barr’s attempt to “entice” Mr. Berman out of his job with other “plum assignments” required answers from the attorney general. Mr. Barr is scheduled to appear before the committee for questioning this month.

“We don’t know yet if the attorney general’s conduct is criminal, but that kind of quid pro quo is awfully close to bribery,” Mr. Nadler said.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the testimony and referred to earlier comments by the attorney general. Mr. Barr has denied that removing or replacing Mr. Berman was an attempt to interfere in any investigation being handled by the Southern District of New York. He authorized Michael E. Horowitz, the department’s independent inspector general, to investigate any actions or decisions that “office supervisors conclude are improper interference with a case.”

Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats were getting worked up about “a lot of nothing.” He pointed out that Mr. Berman did not cite any delays or disruptions in the work of his former office, and that Republicans argued Mr. Barr was simply trying to find an amicable solution to a personnel problem.

The committee plans to release a full transcript of the session in the coming days.

Mr. Berman, a lifelong Republican whom Mr. Trump once personally interviewed for the Southern District job, was fired on June 20, a day after his meeting with Mr. Barr and after a chaotic 24 hours in which the president and Mr. Barr tried to replace him with Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and an ally of the administration. That plan eventually fell apart.

Mr. Berman said he told Mr. Barr that Mr. Clayton was “an unqualified choice” for the Southern District post because he had never been a federal prosecutor and did not have criminal legal experience.

Mr. Berman told the committee that he had also consulted with private lawyers after talking with Mr. Barr to be ready to mount a legal challenge if he were dismissed. He said he ultimately chose not to litigate his removal after learning that Audrey Strauss, his “handpicked and trusted deputy,” would become acting U.S. attorney until a permanent successor was in place.

In recounting the events that led to his departure, Mr. Berman said he received an email on June 18 from a member of Mr. Barr’s staff asking him to meet the attorney general the next day at the Pierre. He was not told the purpose of the meeting.

He said they met shortly after noon on a Friday in Mr. Barr’s hotel suite.

“There were sandwiches on the table,” he said, “but nobody ate.”

According to Mr. Berman’s statement, Mr. Barr began by saying he wanted to make a change in the Southern District and offered Mr. Berman a job as the head of the civil division at the Justice Department in Washington, which was opening up.

Mr. Barr said the move was prompted solely by Mr. Clayton’s desire to return to New York “and the administration’s desire to keep him on the team.”

He also told Mr. Barr that he had no interest in overseeing the civil division or in resigning, Mr. Berman testified, saying that he loved his job. He asked if Mr. Barr was in any way dissatisfied with his performance, and Mr. Barr said he was not.

But Mr. Berman said Mr. Barr pressed him to take the job, saying he could “sit there for five months and see who won the election before deciding what came next for me.”

“The attorney general said that he was trying to think of other jobs in the administration that might be of interest to me,” Mr. Berman testified. “I said that there was no job offer that would entice me to resign from my position.”

At one point, Mr. Barr told him that if he did not resign, he would be fired, Mr. Berman said.

That evening, Mr. Berman said, Mr. Barr spoke with him briefly by phone, asking whether he would be interested in becoming the chairman of the S.E.C. — the job Mr. Clayton held.

Mr. Berman answered that his position was unchanged and asked to arrange for a final conversation about the matter on Monday. But Mr. Barr did not want to wait, he testified, and instead said he would call Mr. Berman the next day, a Saturday.

Later that night, Mr. Berman said he learned the Justice Department had issued a news release saying he was “stepping down.”

“That statement was false,” Mr. Berman said. He issued his own statement, saying he had not resigned and intended to “ensure that this office’s important cases continue unimpeded.”

Mr. Trump fired Mr. Berman the next day.

Charlie Savage contributed reporting.


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