‘Spectacularly Backfired’: Prosecutor’s Firing Sparks Rebellion at SDNY

Geoffrey Berman in 2018, as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CN) — When Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman pushed back against Attorney General Bill Barr’s attempt to oust him late on Friday night, the standoff between a top prosecutor and the Trump administration had a startling sense of déjà vu.

Three years apart, two Manhattan U.S. attorneys refused requests from Washington to quietly step down from their posts in extraordinary flare-ups of rebellion. Both involved whispers of political interference with cases of interest to the president. Both resulted in the prosecutors being fired, and both men wound up replaced by their trusted deputies.

Berman’s crusading predecessor Preet Bharara had lived through this sequence of events in 2017.

Jaimie Nawaday, a former federal prosecutor who witnessed Bharara’s firing, remembers what happened vividly.

“I was in the office when Preet was fired, and that was a very demoralizing, disheartening moment,” Nawaday recalled in a phone interview on Sunday. “And [Berman’s ouster] seemed even worse because of the way it went down.”

Just more than a month after Trump’s inauguration, Bharara received an unexpected phone call from the newly sworn-in president. Viewing the contact as a breach of Department of Justice protocol, Bharara refused to pick up the line and anticipated the worst. One of Bharara’s money-laundering cases against a gold trader named Reza Zarrab had embarrassed the Turkish government, and Zarrab’s then-lawyer Rudy Giuliani had been shuttling between Washington and Turkey’s capital of Ankara lobbying to free his client. Trump reportedly tried to personally intervene to make the case disappear. 

Refusing to step down, Bharara publicly forced Trump to fire him.

“The whole weekend we were just all talking and commiserating,” Nawaday reflected, referring to the aftermath of Bharara’s dismissal. “What should we do? Is there anything we can do? It was almost like we wanted to have some sort of protest or walkout, and then, in the end, we did a receiving line for Preet when he left.”

Zarrab ultimately would plead guilty to funneling billions of dollars to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions and testify against a manager of Turkey’s state-run Halkbank.

Some two years later, Berman would charge Halkbank with the same crimes, reportedly over Barr’s objections. Halkbank’s indictment fell shortly after Trump precipitously withdrew U.S. troops from Syria after a phone call with Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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, who had been implicated in the money-laundering scheme. 

Jennifer Rodgers, another ex-prosecutor who spent more than a decade in the Southern District of New York, noted that none of the usual reasons for replacing a U.S. attorney applied to Berman.

“It’s so clear to me that they actually are in bad faith acting to try to control and influence cases and investigations in the Southern District,” Rodgers said in an interview. “Not just because that’s been a repeat pattern for them and because common sense tells you it’s true and because they still to date have not given any reason why Berman should be removed.”

Before announcing Berman’s departure in a press release, the Department of Justice reportedly offered him a position as chief of the civil division.

“Why in the world would you remove someone and offer them something bigger?” Rodgers asked. “It can’t be a performance-related issue.”

Barr had initially called for Berman to be replaced by the current U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Craig Carpentino, pending the Senate’s confirmation of Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton, whom Trump nominated for the position. 

Such transitions would break the usual protocol, in which a U.S. attorney’s deputy takes over a position until senators from his district recommend a replacement for confirmation. Clayton’s nomination particularly troubled those who noted that he had no experience as a litigator, let alone as a prosecutor.

“It all just smacks of wanting to get someone in there that they find more of a Trump person and a Barr person,” Rodgers added. “Someone who can either influence things or keep them apprised or whatever it is that they wanted to be done differently.”

A Republican and onetime Trump donor, Berman proved his independence from the White House on multiple occasions during his brief tenure. He recused himself from the prosecution of Trump’s ex-fixer Michael Cohen and would not interfere with his team implicating the president in the hush-money scandal. 

As Capitol Hill braced for the impeachment inquiry, Berman indicted Giuliani’s business associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two men implicated in the Ukraine scandal. House Democrats used discovery in that prosecution to build their case to impeach the president, and a related investigation against Giuliani has been reported to be ongoing.

If Barr intended to squelch any of these cases — a charge that the attorney general denies — he ultimately retreated from his initial position by allowing Berman’s deputy Audrey Strauss to take over the position.

“I think it’s spectacularly backfired on them,” Rodgers opined. “I think that they are going to get exactly what they didn’t want, which is a rush to finish things that may ultimately badly harm the president when they become public. … I think they may have lit a fire that they are going to be sorry that they lit and that they are not going to be able to put out.”

Not every former Southern District prosecutor is so confident. 

Nawaday saw no reason why Barr would not try to find some other way to unseat Strauss, the former mob prosecutor replacing Berman.

“So, if I were in the office right now, to be honest, I would probably feel a little bit of impending doom about what the next move might be,” she said.

On Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee will open hearings investigating the Trump administration’s interference with the Justice Department concerning testimony from two whistleblowers. The committee’s chairman, New York Congressman Jerry Nadler, announced plans to seek Berman’s testimony. 

Rodgers believed such testimony could set the record straight about the sequence of events leading to his dismissal.

“It would be nice to have sworn testimony that essentially proves that Bill Barr lied to the American people about how that firing went down,” she said.

Close to midnight on Friday, Berman said he only learned about reports of him “stepping down” as U.S. attorney from a Justice Department press release.

“I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning,” Berman replied, as legal observers noted that he could only arguably be ousted upon the order of the president. 

The next day, Barr claimed that Trump himself signed off on his dismissal, but the president would contradict him again in a statement to reporters hours later.

“We have a very capable attorney general,” Trump told reporters on Saturday. “So that’s really up to him. I’m not involved.” 

Affectionately known as the “Sovereign District” because of its independence from Washington, the Southern District has been living up to its nickname during the Trump administration, and its alumni have been increasingly speaking out against what they view as an encroachment on its politically neutral legacy.

“He was fired,” Mimi Rocah, another longtime SDNY prosecutor currently running for Westchester district attorney, said of Berman. “He resisted because it was so clearly corrupted and irregular and then he relented when Barr dropped the attempt to sidestep the administration.”

Asked whether Berman should testify before Congress, Rocah replied: “Yes. But I also think they must force Barr to testify.”

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