AG Barr says Trump has fired SDNY federal prosecutor who refused to leave; president says he's 'not involved'

Attorney General William Barr informed the District Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) Saturday that President Trump has removed him from his post, a day after the federal prosecutor refused to step down.

In a letter to Geoffrey Berman obtained by Fox News, Barr said he asked Trump to fire Berman after the Manhattan federal prosecutor said Friday he planned to stay on the job against the Trump Administration's wishes.

"Unfortunately, with your statement of last night, you have chosen public spectacle over public service," Barr said in the letter. "Because you have declared that you have no intention of resigning, I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so."

Barr said Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss will take over until a permanent successor is in place.

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Trump, however, distanced himself from Berman's ouster Saturday as he left the White House for Tulsa, Okla., and said it was Barr's call.

"That's all up to the Attorney General," Trump said when asked about Berman's firing. "Attorney General Barr is working on that. That's his department, not my department."

"We have a very capable Attorney General so that's really up to him," Trump said before leaving for his first rally since March. "I'm not involved."

Attorney General William Barr

Attorney General William Barr

U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., immediately called out Trump "contradicting" Barr's announcement. "I urge US Attorney Berman to remain on the job. Bill Barr does not have the authority to remove him," Lieu tweeted.

But Berman said he will leave "immediately" and expressed strong confidence that Strauss will lead the SDNY with integrity and independence.

“In light of Attorney General Barr’s decision to respect the normal operation of law and have Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss become Acting U.S. Attorney, I will be leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, effective immediately," Berman said in a statement.

"It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve as this District’s U.S. Attorney and a custodian of its proud legacy, but 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."

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The announcement Saturday caps off a dramatic standoff that came to public attention a day earlier and set off new tensions between congressional Democrats and the Trump Administration.

Barr and the White House announced late Friday night that Trump will nominate Jay Clayton, the current chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to replace Berman. But Berman, whose office has been a thorn in Trump's side, said he learned of his "departure" from Barr's press release and had no intention of leaving the job.

Geoffrey Berman (left) and Jay Clayton (right)

Geoffrey Berman (left) and Jay Clayton (right)

On Friday, Barr said the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, would take over on an acting basis beginning July 3 until Clayton would be confirmed. Barr switched gears on Saturday by announcing Strauss would manage the SDNY in the interim.

Barr said he hoped Berman would have left the post and assisted in a smooth transition.

"While we advised the public that you would leave the U.S. Attorney’s office in two weeks, I still hoped that your departure could be amicable," Barr wrote, citing the power of the president to remove the court-appointed U.S. Attorney.

Democrats accused the Trump administration of trying to shut down Berman, who is leading investigations into the president's allies.

“The president has doubled down on his fixer’s obstruction of investigations into him and his allies," said Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., a contender to be Joe Biden's vice-presidential pick. "It is clear that nothing will restrain his corruption. No one is above the law. The American people will have their say.”

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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., expressed strong confidence in Strauss to lead the SDNY and said Trump has the power to fire Berman.

“It is my view that any president has the ability to replace political appointees, such as U.S. Attorneys," Graham said. “The decision by President Trump to remove Mr. Berman as acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York falls within the president’s power to appoint or remove U.S. Attorneys."

Earlier Saturday, Graham said he would not take up Clayton's expected nomination to the post unless New York's Democratic senators sign off, signaling the SEC chairman would have an uphill battle to assume the job.

Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he will honor the "blue slip" tradition and require the consent of home-state senators to proceed -- in this case, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Schumer and Gillibrand oppose Clayton's nomination and have called on him to withdraw his name from consideration.

“I will not be complicit in helping President Trump and Attorney General Barr fire a U.S. attorney who is reportedly investigating corruption in this administration," Gillibrand said in a statement. "Jay Clayton should withdraw his name from consideration immediately and remove himself from this sham. President Trump cannot be allowed to desecrate our nominations process further.”

Schumer accused Barr of trying to interfere with ongoing investigations in the Southern District that involve Trump allies. The top Democrat in the Senate urged Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz to launch a probe into Barr's effort to oust Berman.

"[Clayton] can allow himself to be used in the brazen Trump-Barr scheme to interfere in investigations by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, or he can stand up to this corruption, withdraw his name from consideration, and save his own reputation from overnight ruin," Schumer said in a statement Saturday morning.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who helped prosecute the Trump impeachment case before the Senate, announced his committee will launch an investigation into Berman's ouster saying it "smacks of corruption and incompetence." He invited Berman to testify before his committee on Wednesday.

Barr's letter suggested he was not trying to oust Berman completely to make way for Clayton. Barr said he was in talks with Berman to have him stay in the Justice Department or the Trump Administration in a "senior position," including Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division and Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Berman, however, said he was blindsided by Barr's late-night statement Friday announcing his departure and said he intended to stay on until the Senate confirmed his successor to make sure the work continued.

Barr said Berman is not needed to ensure the investigations continue and said he's asked DOJ Inspector General Horowitz to monitor any interference in cases.

"Your statement also wrongly implies that your continued tenure in the office is necessary to ensure that cases now pending in the Southern District of New York are handled appropriately,"  Barr said. "This is obviously false. I fully expect that the office will continue to handle all cases in the normal course and pursuant to the Department’s applicable standards, policies, and guidance."

The Southern District has prosecuted a number of Trump associates, including the president's former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who served a prison sentence for lying to Congress and campaign finance crimes. The office has also been investigating Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s business dealings, including whether he failed to register as a foreign agent, people familiar with the probe told The Associated Press.

Berman recused himself from directly overseeing the Cohen investigation for reasons that were never disclosed.

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Berman has also 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, including hiding the origin of a $325,000 donation to a group supporting Trump’s reelection.

Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton said that Trump sought to interfere in a Southern District investigation into the Turkish Halkbank in an effort to cut deals with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Fox News' Jake Gibson and Ben Florance and the Associated Press contributed to this report.