The Justice Department moved abruptly to oust Geoffrey S Berman, the US attorney in Manhattan overseeing key prosecutions of President Donald Trump's allies and an investigation of his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. But Berman said he was refusing to leave his post and his ongoing investigations would continue. "I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position," Berman said. His statement came hours Attorney General Bill Barr said Berman was stepping down from his position.
The standoff set off an extraordinary clash between the Justice Department and one of the nation's top districts, which has tried major mob and terror cases over the years. It is also likely to deepen tensions between the Justice Department and congressional Democrats who have pointedly accused Barr of politicising the agency and acting more like Trump's personal lawyer than the nation's chief law enforcement officer.
The move to oust Berman came days after allegations surfaced from former Trump national security adviser John Bolton that the president sought to interfere in an Southern District investigation into the state-owned Turkish bank in an effort to cut deals with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Barr offered no explanation for the move in the statement. The White House quickly announced that Trump was nominating the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission to the job, a lawyer with virtually no experience as a federal prosecutor.
Hours later, Berman issued his own statement saying he had learned that he was being pushed out through media report. He vowed to stay on the job until a Trump nominee is confirmed by the Senate. The investigations he oversees will continue, he said.
Federal prosecutors in New York are investigating Giuliani's business dealings, including whether he failed to register as a foreign agent, according to people familiar with the probe. The people were not authorised to discuss the investigation publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The office has also prosecuted a number of Trump associates, including Trump's former personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who served a prison sentence for lying to Congress and campaign finance crimes.
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 $507,000 donation to a group supporting Trump's reelection.
Bolton's tell-all, excerpts of which were posted by the news media this week, included details on how Trump sought to cut a deal to halt SDNY's investigation into whether Halkbank violated US sanctions against Iran in order to free an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey. Six weeks after the pastor's release, Bolton writes that on a call with Erdogan, "Trump then told Erdogan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people." The episode occurred months after Berman assumed the role of US attorney.
A Republican who contributed to the president's election campaign, Berman worked for the same law firm as Giuliani and was put in his job by the Trump administration. But as US attorney, he won over some skeptics after he went after Trump allies.
Berman was appointed by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January 2018, months after Preetinder Singh Bharara was fired after refusing to resign along with dozens of other federal prosecutors appointed by President Barack Obama.
Three months later, FBI agents raided Cohen's offices, an act the president decried as a politically motivated witch hunt.
The following April, in the absence of a formal nomination by Trump, the judges in Manhattan federal court voted to appoint Berman to the position permanently. He has taken a direct hand in other investigations that have angered Trump.
His office subpoenaed Trump's inaugural committee for a wide range of documents as part of an investigation into various potential crimes, including possible illegal contributions from foreigners to inaugural events.
And weeks before the 2018 midterm election, Berman announced insider trading charges against an ardent Trump supporter, Republican Rep. Chris Collins. Collins, who represented western New York, has since resigned.
Under Berman's tenure, his office also brought charges against Michael Avenatti, the combative lawyer who gained fame by representing porn actress Stormy Daniels in lawsuits involving Trump. Avenatti was convicted in February of trying to extort Nike after prosecutors said he threatened to use his media access to hurt Nike's reputation and stock price unless the sportswear giant paid him up to $39 million.