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US prosecutor steps down after resisting Donald Trump's decision to fire him

His office had been investigating President Donald Trump's personal lawyer

Geoffrey Berman was resisting his removal from office. EPA
Geoffrey Berman was resisting his removal from office. EPA

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.

In recent weeks Trump 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.

U.S. President Donald Trump has fired the chief federal prosecutor in New York after he refused to step down. Bloomberg
U.S. President Donald Trump has fired the chief federal prosecutor in New York after he refused to step down. Bloomberg

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, meanwhile, appeared to contradict Barr's letter, telling reporters as he left the White House for a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma that Berman's firing was a matter for Barr.

"Attorney General Barr is working on that. That's his department, not my department... that's really up to him. I'm not involved," Trump said.

Although Berman agreed to step down on Saturday, it is not likely to end the political controversy swirling around his highly unusual firing.

Updated: July 16, 2020 03:42 AM

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