An Attempt At A Real Simple Explanation Of What Happened At The Justice Department This Weekend
And why there’s no way of possibly knowing right away where any of it will lead
It started with Attorney General Bill Barr announcing the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman was going to be “stepping down”. To be replaced on an interim basis by the U.S. Attorney from New Jersey, and ultimately the current Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Southern District, which includes New York City, is considered one of the most powerful if not the most powerful, and often operates quite independently from Washington, although Barr is ultimately its boss, and Trump is his. Ironically, maybe, it was in this office that Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani first made a name for himself. And keep in mind, Berman himself was a Trump hire, after Trump fired Obama holdover Preet Bharara, after saying he was keeping him on.
But then Berman said he had not stepped down, and would not step down, and Attorney General Bill Barr had no authorization to fire him. And showed up at his office Saturday morning. Which seemed to be true. Because even though Trump appointed Berman, he was never approved by the Senate, so his status was ultimately determined by a panel of judges. So only they seemed to have the power to make him leave. Part of the reason why things had gone this route was skepticism about Berman initially, especially among Senate Democrats, since he had been a partner in Rudy Giuliani’s firm.
But, especially under Barr’s overriding theory of the “illimitable nature of the President’s law enforcement discretion”, the President can do whatever he wants. So he issued another letter saying the President had indeed fired Berman.
But almost immediately after, the President said in public “I’m not involved”. Which means either he or Barr was lying. Anyway would Trump’s statement that he had nothing to do with it have held up in court if Berman had tried to challenge it, on the grounds that Trump’s statement proved that Barr was still actually doing the firing, which he couldn’t?
We will never know, because then Berman did resign.
So why? What did he gain by holding out and then suddenly resigning?
One huge thing: instead of an outside U.S. Attorney coming in and taking over the New York office, Berman maneuvered so he’s now handing the reins to his second in command, Audrey Strauss. Who as Trump would say, gets “high marks” from many people who know her work. (This is actually the way succession in the federal justice system is supposed to work, but Barr and Trump have ignored it lately in favor of installing outside people they feel will be more loyal, as they recently did in the U.S. Attorney’s office in DC, although that “loyalist” is already gone.) So at very least that would seem to eliminate delays that would naturally ensue from someone completely new coming in at the top.
Now, what would prevent Barr and/or Trump from relieving Strauss of her duties as soon as she’s installed, and doing their own appointment anyway? We don’t know.
And then there’s the biggest question of all: why? What is it that Barr and Trump find so irksome about Berman’s work that they found it so necessary to yank him out under the cover of a dark, Friday night.
And that’s one it’s frustratingly hard to get an answer to, because there are so many possibilities:
- One simple one may be New York was so hard hit by COVID-19 that while we’re sure investigations continued, courts and grand juries were not operating as normal, but now they’re starting to open back up with everything else.
- The Southern District nabbed two Trump fundraisers with close ties to Giuliani and connections in Ukraine and are accused among other things of raising foreign campaign contributions for Trump, which is illegal. The two were at the airport with one way tickets, so they had to have been pretty sure they were getting out.
- Pedophile and friend to Trump (and Bill Clinton) and a lot of other powerful people, Jeffrey Epstein was being prosecuted by this office too, when he mysteriously died. He was actually lured back to the U.S. from France, and then arrested, when he probably could’ve escaped into Europe.
- Which means the office under Berman did its job well, because the people they were after did not see it coming. And these were very sophisticated folks with very powerful friends.
- Then also there are the ongoing investigations Special Council Robert Mueller referred to federal prosecutors after he finished his report. Many of which are under the purview of the New York Southern District.
- And some have suggested it’s all really just about Trump doing a favor for one of his golf buddies (the SEC chair) while seeing a win-win in also getting rid of a U.S. Attorney who’s been cumbersome to him.
It could be connected to any of that. Or none of that.
Will the Southern District office now rush to file motions to get more of this or other stuff out into the public, if it feels it’s under pressure of attack? Maybe. But also maybe not if its cases aren’t ready and thus would be seriously jeopardized by a premature filing.
And this is where things kind of work in Barr and Trump’s favor: anyone in the U.S. Attorney’s office who takes their job seriously, will never publicly comment on an ongoing investigation or case. The accuracy with which they’ve been able to apprehend their targets is evidence that they do things quietly and efficiently. (The opposite of what we’ve come to expect of people operating under the tutelage of Trump.) So it’s hard for them to shoot back immediately with what about their work may have offended (or scared?) Barr and Trump so.