Attorney General William Barr’s move to oust one of the nation’s most prominent U.S. attorneys is only the latest to ring alarm bells inside and outside of the Justice Department that his actions are being driven by political motives and to benefit President Donald Trump.
Barr abruptly announced late Friday night that he was replacing Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, whose office has investigated close allies of Trump including his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. Berman quickly responded that he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon, setting up a dramatic confrontation that has yet to be resolved.
Barr, who long has held an expansive view of presidential power, has emerged as one of Trump’s fiercest defenders. He has enlisted the Justice Department’s full firepower to probe the president’s politicized charges that he’s been under siege ever since his 2016 campaign by a cadre of “deep state” opponents, many of them inside the Justice Department and FBI.
Barr’s growing list of controversial actions has prompted criticism from current and former law enforcement officials. Even some of his own prosecutors want to testify before Congress about potential wrongdoing.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, who has said he wants the “whistle-blowers” to testify at a hearing on Wednesday, said in a tweet after Barr’s order to remove Berman, “America is right to expect the worst of Bill Barr, who has repeatedly interfered in criminal investigations on Trump’s behalf.”
Barr said Berman would be replaced on July 3 by the U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, who will be in charge on an interim basis until the Senate confirms a permanent replacement. The attorney general said Trump intends to nominate Jay Clayton, chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, to the job.
Berman quickly responded with a statement saying he hadn’t resigned and has no plans to step down until his replacement is confirmed by the Senate, setting up a standoff with Barr and Trump. Nonetheless, Barr intends to stick to the July 3 timeline to remove Berman, a Justice Department official said Saturday.
Further complicating matters, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, usually a loyal Trump supporter, indicated he may not move forward with trying to confirm a new prosecutor in New York without the backing of the state’s two senators — Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
In recent weeks, Barr has also attracted criticism for the key role he played when federal police used force to clear a plaza across from the White House on May 31, where largely peaceful protesters had gathered in response to the killing of George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Barr was seen on television cameras surveying the federal response before police used smoke cannisters and pepper balls to clear protesters, which was followed by Trump’s march across the plaza for a photo opportunity of him holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
In deploying Carpenito as interim U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Barr is following a pattern he has used previously — naming trusted U.S. attorneys for controversial tasks, including a criminal probe into whether the early investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was tainted by illegal actions and anti-Trump bias as the president maintains.
Barr has said there was no basis for the FBI to open the investigation into whether Trump or any of his associates conspired with Russia, and he has sought to undue parts of the investigation, which was taken over by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Last month, Barr overruled his own prosecutors by moving to drop charges against Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents during the Russia probe. Barr said there was no basis for agents to question Flynn.
Barr revealed in February that he established a private channel for Giuliani to relay his allegations on Ukraine, and he ordered prosecutors to reduce their sentencing recommendation for another Trump associate, Roger Stone. Four career prosecutors working on the Stone case withdrew from it after Barr’s order.
One of those prosecutors, Aaron Zelinsky, intends to testify before the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary panel on Wednesday. He would be joined by another department official, John Elias.
Last year, Barr came under criticism for mischaracterizing Mueller’s findings. He said Mueller’s probe found that Trump didn’t obstruct the Russia investigation, even though Mueller had found evidence of obstruction.
In a fiery speech before the conservative Federalist Society in November, Barr denounced efforts to limit the power of the presidency and slammed those who oppose Trump.
“One of the ironies of today is that those who oppose this president constantly accuse this administration of shredding constitutional norms and waging a war on the rule of law,” Barr said. Instead, he said, “it is the left that has engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and undermining the rule of law.”
— With assistance by Steven T. Dennis
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