Trump and Barr Discard Law, Morality and Honor
(Bloomberg Opinion) - As a US attorney in Manhattan, Geoffrey Berman was sitting on one of the most powerful and independent perches in the federal agency. His office has long dominated the most important cases of white-collar crime in the country. It took over terrorists and organized crime. And sometimes it has investigated or prosecuted people who are close to the President of the United States.
Berman's team fired President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in 2018 for tax evasion, bank fraud, and campaign funding violations related to hush money payments to two women who said they had had sexual encounters with the president. More recently, Berman has been investigating Rudolph Giuliani, an omnipresent Trump lawyer and apologist, for possibly violating lobbying laws related to his work in Ukraine. (This is the same Ukraine where Trump tried to spot former Vice President Joe Biden, which led to Trump's impeachment. Two employees of Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, have already been charged in Berman's office.)
Berman's office also investigated whether Deutsche Bank AG complied with anti-money laundering laws. Deutsche Bank has long-standing financial relationships with Trump and the family of his son-in-law Jared Kushner. I have previously described Trump's links to the bank in detail here and here. Berman has summoned Trump's opening committee as part of an investigation into how the new president's team spent more than $ 106 million on his inauguration. And John Bolton's upcoming book claims Trump has promised Turkish President Recep Erdogan to block the investigation into a Turkish state bank, the Halkbank. You guessed it; Berman's office also examines Halkbank.
As a result, Attorney General William Barr fired Berman on Saturday afternoon and acted on Trump's orders. According to the carnivalist acts common in Trumplandia, Berman was released after refusing to resign after Barr wrongly announced late Friday that Berman would "resign".
In his honor, Berman asserted himself, initially saying that he would not go anywhere because the Senate had not appointed his successor and he had to deal with the investigation of his office. To his discredit, Barr noted in the letter he wrote to Berman that he was "surprised and disappointed" that Berman "preferred the public spectacle to the public service".
Barr has been around for a while. He certainly knows that if someone like Berman learns of his release from a press release distributed in the media equivalent of a black hole - late on Friday night - and misrepresenting Berman's understanding of the facts, Berman is unlikely to warrant it play ball. Barr also knows for sure that Berman's investigation is on all sensitive matters that affect Trump, and whatever legitimate reasons to help Trump remove Berman, the atmosphere is more than bad. The presidential election is less than five months away, and cynics like me can be forgiven for looking exactly like a housecleaning job. Democrats in Congress also believe that and are already planning hearings and calling for an investigation. Trump has chosen Jay Clayton, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to succeed Berman. Clayton has never served as a federal prosecutor. Before leading the SEC, he worked in the private sector in corporate law. One of his customers was Deutsche Bank. Trump and Barr may insist that Clayton's resume and client list are irrelevant, but of course they are important. Clayton faces hurdles anyway because Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who oversees the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would submit to the New York Senators, two Democrats, if he thought about who should succeed Berman.
Even though Barr Berman said he asked Trump to fire him, the law is somewhat cloudy on how much leeway the President has to fire a US attorney. Barr, as he is used to, adopted the most expansive interpretation of the President's authority. However, the president himself went into bunker mode when reporters asked him at the White House on Saturday if and why he had released Berman. "Well, it's all up to the Attorney General. Attorney General Barr is working on it," Trump said, trying to distance himself from his government's recent dogfight. "This is his division, not my division. But we have a very capable attorney general. So that's really up to him. I am not involved. "
There is little reason to trust Barr to take over legal issues. He misrepresented the conclusions of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the relationship between Trump's team and Russians trying to sabotage the 2016 elections, saying Mueller found no evidence of collusion or interference with the judiciary. He is a publicly ravaged federal prosecutor who had enough reason to investigate Trump and then started a witch hunt to discredit her. He has attempted to disrupt or undermine other high profile cases involving Trump employees or agents like Roger Stone and Michael Flynn. His office gently pedaled to investigate Trump's maneuvers in Ukraine. He supported the use of violence to remove peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters from the streets in front of the White House so Trump could watch a photo shoot in front of a church - and then resolve.
In short, Barr has repeatedly turned his office and Department of Justice upside down to protect Trump from the consequences of his own actions. There is little reason to believe that Berman's shot does not match this pattern.
Barr maintains an imperial view of the presidency and largely sees the presidents as existing beyond the rule of law. He also believes the US is suffering from a moral vacuum. Last October, he gave a speech at Notre Dame Law School, emphasizing the importance of religion to society. On his way to blurring the separation of church and state, he also claimed that an attack on religion was underway in the United States - which threatened not only the freedom of the individual but also the need for a "transcendent moral order".
If Barr cares so much about morality, he could set an example by acting morally. Telling the truth and complying with the law would be a good place to start.
My father, Arthur O'Brien, was a lawyer in Illinois. He once told me that he is always proud when customers sign documents that he has written without reading them carefully. They trusted him so much. And I remember that in the summer of 1974, shortly after Richard Nixon stepped down, he asked me over a barbecue if I understood how difficult it would be for Nixon's children to go through life and for her father's corruption reply. "Never do anything in your life that would shame your kids for having your last name," he told me.
My father would have understood that Trump and Barr have no regard for basic truths about law, morality, and honor, as the Berman episode shows. And he would have said that it is time for them to take responsibility and keep going.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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