WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - A stand-off over the independence of one of the country’s most important prosecutor’s offices ended on Saturday when Geoffrey Berman agreed to step down as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the office that had been investigating President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani.
Berman’s confirmation of his departure came after Attorney General William Barr told him he had been fired by Trump at Barr’s request, and that Berman’s hand-picked No. 2, Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss, would become Acting U.S. Attorney until a permanent replacement is installed.
Under Strauss’ leadership, Berman said the office could continue its “tradition of integrity and independence.”
Berman’s office, which is known for prosecuting the most high profile terrorism cases, Wall Street financial crimes and government corruption, has not shied from taking on figures in Trump’s orbit.
It oversaw the prosecution of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, indicted two Giuliani associates and launched a probe into Giuliani in connection with his efforts to dig up dirt on Trump’s political adversaries in Ukraine.
Giuliani has not formally been accused of any wrongdoing.
The standoff with Berman follows the latest in a series of moves by Barr that critics say are meant to benefit Trump politically and undermine the independence of the Justice Department.
It also comes as Trump has sought to purge officials perceived as not fully supporting him. In recent weeks he has fired a series of agency watchdogs, including one who played a key role in Trump’s impeachment earlier this year.
The row with Berman began late Friday, when Barr unexpectedly announced that Berman was stepping down and would be replaced by U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton.
Berman, however, issued a statement of his own, saying he had no intention of stepping down until the Senate confirmed his successor, and that his office’s investigations would continue.
On Friday, Barr said he had picked Craig Carpenito, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New Jersey, to serve as Acting U.S. Attorney until Clayton’s confirmation.
But in a letter on Saturday to Berman, Barr back-tracked from that plan, saying Strauss would take over in an acting capacity.
One former Southern District prosecutor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Barr’s initial decision to install Carpenito was a “huge departure” from normal practice.
In the letter, Barr said he was “surprised and quite disappointed” by Berman’s statement late on Friday night in which he refused to quit his job, and he accused Berman of choosing “public spectacle over public service.”
“I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so,” Barr said.
Trump told Fox News Channel he approved Barr’s request, and said he did not know Giuliani was being investigated by Berman, although he had read that recently.
“If (Barr) wants to do something ... I don’t get involved,” Trump said in an interview. “But the president has to sign a document, where I guess you give it your OK. And he wants to run his operation, and that’s okay with me.”
Asked if Barr said why he wanted to fire Berman, Trump said: “We spent very little time talking about it, but I have a lot of respect for Attorney General Barr.”
Although Berman agreed to step down on Saturday, it did not end the political controversy swirling around his highly unusual firing. It comes after Barr intervened in February to scale back a sentencing recommendation for Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone over the advice of career prosecutors.
Then in May, Barr asked a federal judge to dismiss the criminal case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, again prompting questions about whether he was acting in the president’s personal interest.
Jerrold Nadler, the Chairman of the Democrat-controlled House Judiciary Committee, said he has launched an investigation into Berman’s termination.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the firing appeared to have “base and improper motives,” while the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Diane Feinstein, urged the panel’s chairman, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, to launch an investigation into “political interference in the work of the Justice Department.”
Putting a spotlight on prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, a new book by John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, alleges that the president once promised Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan he would oust prosecutors in Berman’s office who were investigating a Turkish bank, Halkbank, for evading U.S. sanctions against Iran.
“The president said to Erdogan at one point, ‘Look, those prosecutors in New York are Obama people. Wait till I get my people in and then we’ll take care of this.’” Bolton told ABC News in a pre-taped interview set to air on Sunday.
Berman’s office ultimately secured an indictment against the bank, and the case is ongoing.
Barr, in his letter to Berman, said his departure would not impede ongoing investigations, and that any allegations of improper interference in a case should be referred to the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington and Karen Freifeld in New York; Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper, Andrea Shalal and Katanga Johnson in Washington and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Daniel Wallis