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Trump fired Berman to give U.S. attorney job to SEC Chairman Clayton, White House claims

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U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman enters the courthouse ahead of a bail hearing in U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking case in New York City, July 15, 2019.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

She said Clayton is “highly regarded” by the president.

Asked directly whether Berman was fired from his post, which handles criminal cases involving federal crimes, because he oversaw cases and investigations of Trump’s associates, McEnany said: “No, he was not.” 

“No investigation will be affected by this” change in leadership at the SDNY U.S. Attorney’s office, she said.

McEnany’s statement came as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called Berman’s firing “corrupt,” and that it “gives the impression that the President interfered in ongoing criminal investigations into himself and his associates.”

Schumer sent a letter to the Justice Department’s internal watchdog, Inspector General Michel Horowitz, and its Office of Professional Responsibility director, Jeffrey Ragsdale, asking that they conduct a joint investigation of Berman’s firing.

Another New York Democrat, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, said Sunday he is “sure” that Berman will testify to that committee about the events leading up to his termination.

At the press conference Monday, McEnany also said that Attorney General William Barr “was taking the lead on this matter” to fire Berman, and that Trump had signed off on that highly controversial termination of Berman.

“Mr. Clayton now will in time get to that position,” she said.

But Clayton’s nomination could well be doomed.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said he will respect a Senate tradition that gives effective veto power over the nomination of U.S. attorneys to the senators from the states that contain the prosecutors’ offices. New York’s other senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, is also a Democrat and expected to block Clayton’s appointment, along with Schumer.

McEnany’s explanation for Berman’s firing echoed claims made by unidentified senior administration officials to reporters Friday and Saturday after the bombshell news broke that Barr wanted to oust Berman from the SDNY office.

That office has and is continuing to investigate associates of Trump, most notably his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, a former New York City mayor and himself the former U.S. attorney for Manhattan.

Berman’s office previously obtained convictions of Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, for multiple financial crimes, is currently prosecuting two associates of Giuliani who helped him with efforts to convince Ukraine officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. 

Jay Clayton, chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The now-official explanation of Berman’s dismissal to make way for Clayton has been widely scoffed at by former U.S. Attorney for Manhattan Preet Bharara, whom Trump fired and replaced with Berman, and other observers of the powerful prosecutors’ office.

Barr said Friday night that Berman, who had given no indication of plans to leave his job, would be stepping down as U.S. attorney, and that Trump would nominate Clayton for the position.

Berman shortly afterward, in an perhaps even more stunning move than Barr’s, announced he was refusing to leave the job until a successor was confirmed by the Senate.

Berman, according to the Justice Department’s own internal guidance, could not be fired by Barr because he had been appointed to the post by the judges of the federal district court in the SDNY, not by the president, as is the norm.

The Justice Department’s guidance says the president does have the power to fire a court-appointed federal prosecutor. But it is not clear that guidance has ever been tested in court.

On Saturday, Barr told Berman in a letter that Trump had fired him.

Trump later confused the issue Saturday by telling reporters “that’s all up to the Attorney General … I’m not involved.”

But Berman nonetheless said he was immediately leaving the office.

However, Berman pointedly noted that Barr on Saturday had conceded that Berman’s deputy Audrey Strauss would lead the office on an interim basis.

Barr first said on Friday night that  U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Craig Carpenito would also run the SDNY on an interim basis until Clayton is confirmed.

Berman’s statement said of Strauss, “I could leave the District in no better hands than Audrey’s.”

“She is the smartest, most principled, and effective lawyer with whom I have ever had the privilege of working,” Berman wrote. “And I know that under her leadership, this Office’s unparalleled [assistant United States attorneys]  investigators, paralegals, and staff will continue to safeguard the Southern District’s enduring tradition of integrity and independence.”

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., on Sunday night said on MSNBC that Berman’s firing “is like deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say.”

“This happened in 2006 in the Bush administration, when you had seven or eight U.S. attorneys  fired – ultimately determined to be fired for political reasons, and it costs that attorney general, [Alberto] Gonzales, his job,” Jones said.

“What we’d like to see is see the attorney general and former U.S. Attorney Berman appear before House Committees, talk about it, answer questions,” said Jones, who himself is a former U.S. attorney.

“It just doesn’t add up to me that somebody fires one U.S. attorney because somebody else might want the job. That’s just not the appropriate way to handle U.S. attorneys,” Jones said. “So things are just not adding up, and I hope they’ll come, if it’s as innocent as they say, I hope they come to testify about it.”

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