U.S. prosecutor who has investigated Trump lawyer refuses to resign
By Nathan Layne and Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A leading U.S. attorney general, whose office has investigated President Donald Trump's personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, refused to resign on Friday after the government abruptly announced it would replace him.
The dramatic standoff marks the latest in a series of unusual actions by Attorney General William Barr, which critics say should benefit Trump politically and undermine the Department of Justice's independence.
It also happens when Trump tries to clean up officials who don't find him fully supportive. Over the past few weeks, he's fired a number of agency watchdogs, including one that played a key role in Trump's impeachment earlier this year.
Barr said in a surprising nightly announcement that Manhattan attorney Geoffrey Berman has resigned and will nominate Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Jay Clayton to take Berman's place.
Berman, who runs a powerful office known for pursuing high-profile terrorism, Wall Street financial crimes, and government corruption, said he first learned of the move from Barr's press release and would not be quiet.
"I have not resigned and have no intention of resigning," Berman said in a statement. "I will resign if a candidate appointed by the President is confirmed by the Senate. Until then, our investigation will continue immediately or without interruption."
A Justice Department official asked about Berman's refusal to leave until a successor is confirmed told Reuters that the "schedule remains the same" Barr had set when the replacement was announced.
Since his appointment in January 2018, Berman has not been afraid to accept Trump's orbit numbers. His office oversaw the prosecution of Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal lawyer, accused two Giuliani employees and opened an investigation against Giuliani to stain Trump's political opponents in Ukraine.
Prosecutors have not accused Giuliani of misconduct.
Berman's abrupt attempted release came when the Justice Department ordered a federal court to block the publication of a book by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, the allegations of which include a claim that Trump attempted to disrupt an investigation overseen by Berman's office.
"This late Friday night layoff stinks of possible corruption of the legal process," Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the top Senate Democrat, wrote on Twitter. "What annoys President Trump? An earlier action by this US lawyer or one that is still ongoing?"
The chairman of the House Justice Committee, Jerrold Nadler, also a Democrat, said he intended to invite Berman to testify.
Berman replaced Preet Bharara, who was released in early 2017 shortly after Trump took office as a U.S. attorney. Bharara, an outspoken critic of the president, said the timing of the move to replace his successor was strange.
"Why does a president get rid of his own hand-picked US lawyer on SDNY on Friday night, less than five months before the election?" Bharara wrote on Twitter, referring to the upcoming US presidential election in November.
While the Senate is considering Clayton's nomination, Trump has appointed Craig Carpenito, the U.S. attorney for the New Jersey District, as the incumbent U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, Barr said in his statement.
But it wasn't clear if Barr could force Berman.
Berman was never endorsed by the Senate, the usual procedure for appointing U.S. attorneys, and instead was appointed by the district judges under a U.S. law that says he can serve until the position is filled.
Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas at the Austin School of Law, said the position had to be filled by someone who was confirmed by the Senate or selected by a judge. Carpenito, Vladeck wrote on Twitter, is not one of them. Vladeck, however, also passed a contradicting law that gives the president the power to remove US lawyers.
Before joining the SEC, Clayton worked as a lawyer for mergers and acquisitions at Sullivan & Cromwell. During his time as head of the SEC, he is considered a non-partisan consensus-maker.
Department of Justice officials said Clayton, who had planned to leave the administration and return to New York, had expressed "interest" in the role of the United States lawyer in New York, and Barr "thought it was a good idea."
Barr's announcement comes less than a week before Nadler's committee will hold a hearing at which Department of Justice officials are to testify about political interference in the ministry.
Earlier this year, Barr intervened to cut the long-term Trump ally Roger Stone's recommendation to judgment, and ordered all four prosecutors to withdraw from the case in protest.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne, Sarah N. Lynch and Karen Freifeld; Additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Sandra Maler, Daniel Wallis, Michael Perry, Noeleen Walder and William Mallard)
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