The ongoing saga surrounding Attorney General William Barr’s bungled attempt to fire the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) took several dramatic turns on Saturday, culminating with President Donald Trump severely undercutting the credibility of his own attorney general.
In a letter chastising the SDNY’s Geoffrey Berman of “choosing spectacle over public service” for contradicting Barr’s initial claim that he “stepped down” from leading the storied federal prosecutor’s office, Barr declared that President Trump had fired Berman.
“Because you have declared that you have no intention of resigning, I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so,” Barr wrote.
Unfortunately, less than an hour later, the president spoke to reporters and denied having any involvement in the decision to oust Berman.
“Well, that’s all up to the Attorney General. Attorney General Barr is working on that. That’s his department not my department. But we have a very capable Attorney General. So that’s really up to him. I’m not involved,” Trump said when asked about the matter.
Former SDNY U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said that Trump’s comments showed that either the president or the attorney general had lied about the circumstances of Berman’s firing.
Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti also pointed out that it appeared Barr was lying.
Trump declaring that he didn’t have a hand in the decision was particularly perplexing. That’s because the president is the only person authorized to remove Berman, who was appointed by federal judges after a prolonged vacancy.
“Trump’s claim he isn’t involved in firing Berman—after Barr said Trump was, as it’s legally required to remove Berman—reaffirms: Trump’s a coward who refuses to take any responsibility, even for bullying,” former DOJ Deputy Legal Advisor the National Security Council Joshua Geltzer.
“It’s like having Barr dismiss charges v. Flynn rather than pardoning him,” Geltzer added.
The failure of Trump and Barr to get their stories straight prior to making public statements only further complicated the already surreal circumstances surrounding control of the SDNY, an office that has prosecuted several of the president’s close personal and political allies.
Barr began by unexpectedly and erroneously announcing Berman’s resignation and declaring his intention to install Craig Carpenito, the current U.S. attorney in New Jersey, to fill the role as Acting U.S. Attorney for SDNY.
However, in his letter on Saturday, Barr said he would be designating Berman’s hand-picked Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss as the acting head of the office. Barr provided no reason for the sudden change other than to say it was “[b]y operation of law.”
Berman capped off the day by resigning, citing Barr’s decision to “respect the normal operation of law” by naming Strauss as his acting successor.
The tumultuous circumstances and revolving excuses left attorneys and former government officials aghast. Some called for Barr’s impeachment.
“The end of the story is Bill Barr’s impeachment. It’s time for the House to show it has the nerve to protect this republic,” former director of the U.S. Office for Government Ethics Walter Shaub wrote.
Daniel Goldman, the lead counsel for House investigators during Trump’s impeachment trial, also lambasted the attorney general.
“There are many open questions about what transpired last night in the SDNY, but one thing is clear: Bill Barr lied when he said Berman stepped down,” Goldman wrote. “Bill Barr also lied about the Mueller Report. Bill Barr is a dangerous, lying enabler who is destroying the DOJ.”
“It seems Trump is so accustomed to ‘I don’t take any responsibility’ and pretending that he isn’t a part of his administration that he is incapable of firing Berman even when he has been expressly told that he must do it himself and that it cannot be pawned off on a subordinate,” lawyer Max Kennerly wrote, echoing Geltzer’s take.
[Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images.]
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