US attorney who was investigating Trump's lawyer replaced in surprise move

Geoffrey Berman served on President Donald Trump's transition team.
Geoffrey Berman served on President Donald Trump's transition team.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - In a surprise move, the US Justice Department said on Friday (June 19) that it was replacing Mr Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney in Manhattan whose office has been investigating Mr Rudolph Giuliani, the personal lawyer of US President Donald Trump.

Attorney-General William Barr said in a press release late on Friday evening that Mr Trump intends to nominate Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton to replace Mr Berman as head of the Southern District of New York.

The reason for Mr Berman’s departure could not be immediately determined. 

"I learned in a press release from the Attorney-General tonight that I was ‘stepping down’ as United States Attorney. I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning my position, to which I was appointed by the Judges of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York," Mr Berman said in a statement. 

He said that until a presidentially appointed nominee was confirmed by the Senate, the office’s "investigations will move forward without delay or interruption."

A Justice Department official, asked about Mr Berman’s refusal to leave the post until a successor is confirmed, told Reuters the "timeline remains the same" as Mr Barr laid out in announcing the replacement. 

Since being appointed to the post in January 2018, Mr Berman has not shied from taking on powerful figures in Mr Trump's orbit.

He oversaw the prosecution of Michael Cohen, Mr Trump's former personal lawyer, indicted two Giuliani associates and launched a probe into Mr Guiliani in connection with his efforts to dig up dirt in the Ukraine on Mr Trump's political adversaries.

Prosecutors have not accused Mr Giuliani of wrongdoing. 

Mr Berman’s abrupt attempted dismissal came as the Justice Department asks a federal court to block publication of a book by former National Security Adviser John Bolton, whose claims include an allegation Mr Trump tried to interfere with a probe overseen by Mr Berman’s office. 

"This late Friday night dismissal reeks of potential corruption of the legal process," Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the top Democrat in the US Senate, wrote on Twitter.

"What is angering President Trump? A previous action by this US Attorney or one that is ongoing?" House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, also a Democrat, said he intends to invite Mr Berman to testify. 

While the Senate considers Mr Clayton's nomination, Mr Trump has appointed Mr Craig Carpenito, currently the US attorney for the District of New Jersey, to serve as the acting US attorney for the Southern District, Mr Barr said in his statement.

Mr Berman, who served on Mr Trump's transition team, had replaced Mr Preet Bharara, who was himself fired soon after Mr Trump became president.

Mr Bharara said the timing and manner of the move to replace Mr Berman was strange.

"Why does a president get rid of his own hand-picked US Attorney in SDNY on a Friday night, less than 5 months before the election?" Mr Bharara wrote on Twitter.

Mr Clayton, a former Wall Street lawyer seen as a bipartisan consensus-builder during his time leading the SEC, also could not immediately be reached for comment.