President Donald Trump’s decision this weekend to remove a prominent prosecutor whose office is investigating the president’s business associates has sparked an outcry from some members of Congress and former U.S. district attorneys. That includes three members of Maine’s congressional delegation, who say the move raises new questions about whether U.S. Attorney General William Barr is trying to short-circuit those investigations.
Up until his ouster last weekend, Geoffrey Berman had been the U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and perhaps the most prominent prosecutor in the country.
Berman oversaw the investigation and prosecution of Michael Cohen, the longtime personal attorney of President Trump, and later, of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with sex trafficking of minors before dying in a Manhattan prison.
But Berman was yanked from his post in a sequence of events that began late Friday evening when U.S. Attorney General William Barr claimed that the New York prosecutor was stepping down – which Berman himself then denied.
“The attorney general (Barr) had announced that Geoffrey Berman had stepped down. And then Geoffrey Berman said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ And then, you know Trump said ‘I didn’t have anything to do with it,’ and then the attorney general said, ‘Yes, it was the president’s idea.’ So, it’s just this mumbo-jumbo of questionable answers,” said 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree.
Pingree, a Democrat, says the removal of Berman is troubling for numerous reasons.
First is Barr’s claim that Berman had quit, followed by the president’s assertion that he had no role in the firing.
But Pingree and others are concerned that the move against Berman is even more nefarious.
“Unfortunately it seems like one more occurrence of the Trump administration attempting to obstruct justice and we, unfortunately, are getting a little bit too used to this,” Pingree says.
Pingree is referring to investigations that Berman’s office had led into the dealings of Trump associate Rudy Giuliani, a central figure in the Ukraine scandal that ultimately led to the president’s impeachment by the Democrat-controlled House and his eventual acquittal by the Republican-led Senate.
Giuliani has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but Berman’s ouster has raised suspicions that his removal was orchestrated by Barr to protect the president.
“There are 93 U.S. Attorneys in the United States,” said Maine independent U.S. Sen. Angus King. “And the Justice Department has recently moved to remove two, one in Washington, D.C. and one in New York. And both of them happen to be involved investigating the president or the president’s associates.”
King is referring to Barr’s Justice Department intervention in two high-profile cases involving associates of President Trump — interventions that ultimately led prosecutors to resign in protest.
King, who voted against Barr’s confirmation last year, says Berman’s removal should be explained, even if the president is authorized to fire U.S. attorneys as he sees fit.
Neither Barr nor Trump have given a reason for removing Berman, and the president attempted to distance himself from the decision in a Saturday interview with FOX News.
“I don’t even know about Giuliani being investigated. You’re telling me that. I read that over the last day, but I don’t know about Rudy Giuliani being investigated. Investigated for what?” said Trump.
But 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, in a statement described the White House’s removal of Berman as an effort “to impede or block” the district attorney’s corruption investigations.
“After watching Attorney General Barr get caught mischaracterizing and backtracking, it’s clear that the removal of Geoffrey Berman wasn’t on the level,” Golden said. “The Southern District of New York under Mr. Berman has been pursuing corruption at the highest levels, including investigating Ukrainian nationals funneling foreign money into American political campaigns, hush money payments, and members of Congress using their positions for insider trading.”
And Golden said the White House move looked like “the exact kind of corruption and self-dealing they told Americans they would wipe out when they got to Washington.”
Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who voted to confirm Barr last year, also questioned the timing of Berman’s removal in a statement. But she said the promotion of Audrey Strauss as acting U.S. Attorney for the New York office is a sign that the office’s investigations will proceed without interference.
“That is what is important — that the office continues current investigations with independence and integrity,” Collins said.
The House Judiciary Committee is investigating Berman’s removal and will hold a hearing on Wednesday.