22 June 2020

Firing of top US prosecutor grips US legal establishment

Geoffrey Berman: 'It has been the honour of a lifetime to serve as US Attorney'

Political tussle over weekend sees Geoffrey Berman ousted by President Trump

Geoffrey Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, was dismissed by President Donald Trump over the weekend after an abortive attempt on Friday by US Attorney General William Barr to oust him.

The tussle, which gripped the US political and legal establishment, began when Barr, a former Kirkland & Ellis partner, announced that Berman was “stepping down” on Friday.

Berman — effectively the prosector for Wall Street, the Department of Justice's (DoJ's) chief lawyer for New York's financial and legal hub — refused, saying he would only step down when a presidentially appointed nominee was confirmed by the Senate. “Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption,” he added.

Barr responded by asking Trump to fire Berman and then informing him of the decision in a curt letter of dismissal in which he accused Berman of “public spectacle”.

Berman said he had agreed to step down following the nomination of the assistant US Attorney, Audrey Strauss, to head the office on an acting basis, until the Senate could confirm a permanent replacement.

“It has been the honour of a lifetime to serve as US Attorney and a custodian of its proud legacy, but I could leave the district in no better hands than Audrey’s,” he said.

Barr had initially considered nominating the US Attorney for New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, to serve on an interim basis before yielding to convention, which dictates that the deputy US attorney for the district should take the role.

US lawyers were quick to comment. Former US attorney general Eric Holder, now of Covington & Burling, said on Twitter that the post was being subjected to unprecedented political interference.

“It is heart-breaking and infuriating to see what Trump and Barr are doing to DOJ," he said.

The National Law Journal said the affair raised “broad new questions and concerns among lawyers about Barr's leadership of the Justice Department”.

There is also controversy surrounding Barr’s proposed nominee for Berman’s permanent replacement, Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities & Exchange Commission, who has never practised as a litigator.

Although the SEC carries out prosecutions, that responsibility is usually delegated to its director of enforcement.

Clayton, a deal lawyer, has been a conservative SEC chair, focusing on consumer issues, mainstream anti-corruption and market abuse enforcement.

During his former tenure at Sullivan & Cromwell, he advised clients includng Goldman Sachs, Barclays Capital and Deutsche Bank, the latter having close connections to Trump’s business interests. 

Clayton said it was “a great honour to be considered for this position”.

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