WASHINGTON — The ousted U.S. attorney who was leading investigations into President Donald Trump’s allies told the House Judiciary panel on Thursday that Attorney General William Barr “repeatedly urged” him to resign during a hastily arranged meeting that sheds light on the extraordinary standoff surrounding his departure.
Geoffrey Berman, the former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, provided the committee with a detailed account behind closed doors of three days in June as he was pushed out, according to his opening statement, which was obtained by The Associated Press.
Berman said Barr, over a 45-minute session at the Pierre Hotel in New York, “pressed” him to step aside and take on a new job heading up the Justice Department’s Civil Division so the administration could install Jay Clayton, chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, to the top prosecutor post in Manhattan.
“I told the attorney general that I was not interested,” Berman told the panel.
Berman explained, “There were important investigations in the office that I wanted to see through to completion.” He told Barr that, while he liked Clayton, he viewed the SEC commissioner as “an unqualified choice” for the job.
“He had had no criminal experience,” Berman said.
When Barr warned that if he didn’t go, he would be fired, “I told him that while I did not want to get fired, I would not resign,” Berman said.
The Judiciary Committee interview, which is being transcribed for public release later, comes as the panel deepens its probe of politicization at the Justice Department.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has called Berman’s dismissal “part of a clear and dangerous pattern” of behavior by Barr. The panel’s Democratic majority is pursuing its investigation of the attorney general, who they say operates more like Trump’s personal lawyer than the nation’s top law enforcement official. Barr is set to testify before the committee later this month.
The Southern District, known for its high-profile prosecutions, is where Berman oversaw several ongoing investigations of Trump associates, including some who figured prominently in the House impeachment inquiry of the president.
Berman’s office is looking into the business dealings of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer and a former New York mayor. It has also prosecuted Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who went to prison for lying to Congress and campaign finance crimes.
The closed-door interview with Berman spanned three hours. He was not expected to disclose information about the investigations into Trump's circle, but rather to discuss only his removal, according to a person familiar with the proceeding who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss it. He arrived without a lawyer.
The session comes as the Capitol remains partially shut down during the COVID-19 crisis. A handful of lawmakers, but not all those on the panel, attended.
Berman, a Republican lawyer and donor to Trump, was tapped by the administration in 2018 as the U.S. attorney for SDNY.
He ultimately agreed to step down from his post, but only after being assured his office’s probes of Trump’s circle would continue.
As he sat alone before the committee, Berman told the panel of the series of events that started with a Thursday email from Barr's office requesting the meeting. He said he was not told what it was about.
When he arrived at Barr's hotel suite the next day, there "were sandwiches on the table, but nobody ate."
Barr told him he wanted to make changes at the office. Berman resisted, saying he “loved” his job and asked if Barr was “dissatisfied” with his performance.
Barr assured him the move was solely because Clayton wanted to relocate to New York and the administration wanted to “keep him on the team.”
Back and forth it went, with Barr saying the move would be good for Berman’s resume and eventual return to the private sector, Berman said. Berman would “only have to sit there” for five months until the presidential election determined next steps, Barr said. He told Berman it would be an opportunity to accumulate a “book of business” — clients — to bring to a private firm.
As Berman remain unmoved, Barr told him "he was trying to think of other jobs in the administration" that might be of interest. "I said that there was no job offer that would entice me to resign from my position," Berman recalled.
Late that Friday the Justice Department issued a statement saying Berman was stepping down, launching the standoff. Berman issued his own statement saying he had “no intention of resigning.” He showed up for work Saturday.
On Saturday night, Barr publicly released a letter saying Berman had been fired by the president.
At the time, Trump told reporters it was “all up to the attorney general,” adding, “I wasn’t involved.”
Berman told the panel the letter also contained a “critical concession” from Barr. In it, Barr stated that Berman’s hand-picked deputy would take over as acting U.S. attorney until the permanent successor was in place. Berman said that with “full confidence” the work of the office would continue, “I decided to step down and not litigate my removal.”
It’s not the first ouster of a U.S. attorney from the SDNY. Preet Bharara, a former federal prosecutor appointed by President Barack Obama, announced that he was fired in March 2017, shortly after Trump took office.
Berman had worked from 1987 to 1990 for the independent counsel who investigated the administration of President Ronald Reagan in the Iran-Contra affair.
He previously served in the SDNY office as an assistant U.S. attorney from 1990 to 1994 before joining private practice, including time at the same firm as Giuliani. He reportedly met with Trump before being assigned the top federal prosecutor job in Manhattan.
SDNY has probed Trump’s inaugural fundraising and overseen the prosecution of two Florida businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who were associates of Giuliani and tied to the Ukraine impeachment investigation. The men were charged in October with federal campaign finance violations.
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report from Washington.