(CN) — The day before the extraordinary Friday night standoff between Attorney General Bill Barr and now-former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, New York’s luxurious Pierre Hotel was the site of a chilly meeting between the prosecutors.
“There were sandwiches on the table, but nobody ate,” Berman told House lawmakers Thursday, reading from a prepared statement in the closed-door hearing.
Berman had served over two years at the helm of the Southern District of New York, but, as he narrated to Congress, Barr wanted to him to resign so he could install Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Jay Clayton, a man with no experience as a prosecutor or a litigator, in the position.
Summoned to Barr’s hotel suite for the 45-minute meeting on June 18, Berman says he told Barr that Clayton was “an unqualified choice.”
“I asked the attorney general if he was in any way dissatisfied with my performance as U.S. Attorney,” Berman said. “He said that he was not at all dissatisfied.”
When it became clear that he would not leave quietly, Berman says, Barr warned him about the professional consequences of defiance.
“The attorney general said that if I did not resign from my position I would be fired,” Berman testified. “He added that getting fired from my job would not be good for my resume or future job prospects. I told him that while I did not want to get fired, I would not resign.”
Berman’s statement to Congress represents a prelude to the whirlwind 48 hours that followed. Late at night on June 19, Barr issued a statement announcing Clayton’s nomination to the Southern District of New York and Berman’s immediate resignation from the position. In a highly unusual transfer of power, Barr said that the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, would take over the position until the Senate had its say.
Berman refused to leave his post and contradicted the attorney general’s statement that he resigned.
Recapping the testimony later this afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee highlighted Barr’s pattern of deception as a key takeaway.
“In his effort to push out Mr. Berman, Attorney General Barr lied repeatedly to the public,” the committee wrote.
The weekend after the standoff, Barr backed down on the successor issue, allowing Berman’s trusted deputy, Audrey Strauss, to take over as the Southern District’s acting U.S. attorney, a position she holds today.
“With that concession, and having full confidence that Audrey would continue the important work of the office, I decided to step down and not litigate my removal,” Berman added.
Berman’s statement does not answer the question of whether Barr’s shakeup of the district was an effort to undermine cases or investigations embarrassing to President Trump.
Multiple cases have been floated as candidates: Berman made waves by recusing himself from the prosecution of Michael Cohen, refusing to interfere as his prosecutors implicated Trump in his former fixer’s campaign finance crimes. The New York Times later reported that Barr tried to undermine that conviction after the fact in a Justice Department memo.
Various news articles reported about the existence of an investigation of Trump’s legal maven Rudy Giuliani, whose former business associate Lev Parnas is also under indictment in a case opened during Berman’s tenure.
Giuliani also represented gold trader Reza Zarrab in a money-laundering case involving Turkey’s state-run Halkbank. Both cases reportedly spurred the Trump administration to intervene as a favor to Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whom Zarrab implicated in illicit trades violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
On the week Berman was fired, former Secretary of State John Bolton would accuse Trump of trying to interfere with the Halkbank case in a pattern of doing favors for one of the “dictators he liked”: Erdoğan.
Though CNN reported a standoff between Barr and Berman over the decision to prosecute Halkbank, Berman did not mention the case in his statement.
Berman did, however, reveal that he had been prepared to litigate for his job back if Barr did not leave the Southern District in the hands of Strauss.
“Immediately after I left the meeting, I called members of my executive staff,” Berman wrote. “I also called attorneys to represent me in a private capacity in case I was fired. I wanted to be ready to challenge the firing in court on the ground that I was appointed by the court of the Southern District of New York and therefore could not be fired by the attorney general or the president.”
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.