The Southern District of New York is historically known for its independence from government. That independence has no He was appreciated by the Trump administration or Attorney General William Barr, as was made clear last weekend when Geoffrey Berman, the SDNY’s chief prosecutor, was fired, in a confusing two-day episode. What makes the incident so troubling are two different factors: one, that Berman succeeded Preet Bharara, whose dismissal from SDNY was also extremely suspicious; Two, that Berman was first personally interviewed by President Donald Trump for his position, a big no-no when it comes to political interference. Everything shows that, in the years since Bharara left office, the rules and regulations on how the Justice Department works have been twisted, and the sudden dismissal of a United States attorney seems to fit a broader pattern.
In the Tuesday episode of What Next, I spoke to Jeremy Stahl, a senior editor of Slate who covers the Department of Justice, about what Berman leaves behind about Barr’s control over the Justice Department, and what this could mean for the cases that Barr is accused of prosecution: including those against his own boss, the president. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: We’re going to explain exactly what happened this weekend, because I think if you’re a casual observer, it seems really confusing. It started on Friday when Bill Barr announced that Geoffrey Berman was resigning.
Jeremy Stahl: Barr said Friday night, in this highly unusual announcement, that Berman would resign and be replaced in this highly unusual way outside of the normal appointment procedure. Very quickly, Berman issued this statement saying that he was not resigning.
This is really rare, right?
I am trying to think of a parallel situation in which a US prosecutor. USA He explicitly rebuked the acting attorney general while maneuvering to remove the US attorney. USA Of his office. The closest I can think of is the Saturday Night Massacre that President Richard Nixon started when he tried to fire the special prosecutor who was investigating Watergate and got rid of the replacement attorney general after the attorney general replacement until he found to a person who would do his job. offers. Other than that, it’s hard to think of something similar, even though these two things are obviously quite different.
On Saturday, Barr stated that the president said Berman was fired. And then Trump said: I am not involved. All of which seems strange on his part.
The President has the ability to fire an attorney from the United States if he wishes. And by Sunday, apparently, everyone had arranged their stories. The president told Fox News that it was a procedural thing Barr had asked him to do, in terms of intervening to fire Berman. More importantly, Barr said he would follow the successor’s normal procedure. Audrey Strauss, Berman’s deputy, will take office until the Senate approves and confirms a permanent successor. What she did was allow Berman to feel good about leaving this position amid the chaos: As long as this person is in charge of this office, I feel comfortable leaving it to him..
All the while it seemed that the important thing for Berman was to ensure this chain of command, that someone he trusted took over the office. Do we have any idea why that was the hill he wanted to die on?
All we know are these tea leaves and little clues that he left in his Friday note saying he wouldn’t be leaving. The main one is that she said she was going to stay to ensure that the ongoing investigations were protected and essentially free from political interference. So I suppose the implication was that he didn’t trust others, the strangers, to take on the cases that he and the office were currently working on and that Strauss, whom he trusts, will now be in charge.
Berman had this protection: only the President could fire him. Does Strauss have that protection?
She does not. Barr could fire her, allowing her to do the president’s dirty work again if a situation arises where being in that office is inconvenient for someone.
Part of the reason why this episode of Geoffrey Berman vs. William Barr raised so many flags is that the SDNY has been a driving force behind many independent investigations by the Trump administration – in Rudy Giuliani, in the Trump donors who were caught. in the impeachment of the president, and in Michael Cohen. But a lawyer doesn’t have to actively frustrate the president to get his attention. Simply allowing an investigation into Trump to proceed unhindered has also ended the races. That may be what happened here.
I think that speaks to how Trump has often described what he wants from a Justice Department: he wants a protection scam, a Roy Cohn, a personal lawyer to do what he wants, operate to protect his friends, and possibly even go after his adversaries. .
Who runs these offices is really important. This is not the first time Barr has put, or tries to put, someone close to him in charge of an office. This happened in Washington, and ended up having a real impact in cases related to the Trump administration. Can you tell that story?
It was a similar dynamic at the United States Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia, when Jessie Liu, who considers herself a very conservative Republican, was in charge. Line prosecutors at that office came up with the cases that Robert Mueller filed, which directly affected Trump’s friends and political allies. Liu was involved in those cases, and did not interfere. She did not stop those cases. She did not protect the President in any real way. Those cases continued.
You’re talking about cases against Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, specifically.
Yes. In February of this year, she was oddly replaced in an unusual dating setting where she was told she was getting a position that she ultimately didn’t get. So Barr chose Timothy Shea, this very close confidant, to directly replace her. He immediately saw what he did with that office in terms of those cases, working on behalf of the criminal defendants, one of whom pleaded guilty and one of those convicted, and worked to protect these people who, again, were confidants. politicians. and allies of the president.
And in both cases, the Justice Department attorneys working on them resigned.
Yes. In one of the cases there was a total resignation for that of a Justice Department official, and I think that official will soon testify before Congress. Otherwise, prosecutors in those cases simply dropped the cases.
So you can see how these decisions are putting these lawyers between a rock and a tough spot, making them choose which side they are on.
To his credit, the people who work at the institution on a day-to-day basis, it seems, have done the right thing, for the most part, in terms of doing their job and, when their jobs were thwarted, taking the crucial step of showing in a certain I measured what was happening by resigning. They created a scenario where people were more aware of what Barr was doing and how he was interfering with the levers of justice to protect the President. But it also resulted in multiple letters from thousands of former Justice Department officials who said directly that Barr is abusing his power and that he must leave.
What are the mechanisms by which other branches of government could intervene at this point? You have been quite critical of Democrats in the past for not holding Barr accountable.
Well, it is difficult because, to give them credit, they tried to accuse the president, and that did not turn out as they wanted. So it’s tough when the Republican majority that controls the Senate has shown no interest in holding this administration legally accountable.
And when was the last time Barr was in Congress giving testimony, doing the basics?
We’re going to have this very strange circumstance this week, where the House Judiciary Committee that has jurisdiction over all of this is going to interview members of the Justice Department about inappropriate political influence and interference, and the attorney general refuses to come forward to defend himself or talk or even explain.
The guy the Trump administration originally wanted to replace Berman with is not gone: Jay Clayton of the SEC. The Senate has the power to approve a nomination like that. What do we know about how that process could go?
In those cases, if your home state senator, the office state senator who is open for the appointment, opposes that appointment, historically, the chairman of the Judicial Committee has granted senators from the home state privileges to reject the full nomination. The committee’s current chairman, Senator Lindsey Graham, has so far said he will honor that. And that means that Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have vetoes on this and have an opportunity to say no to this appointment. They have already said that they would exercise it. It remains to be seen if Graham will stick to what he said.
I wonder if you see it as a hit or if you see it as a weak sauce.
It really depends on what happens next with the current US prosecutor. USA, Audrey Strauss, and if she is allowed to do her job.
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