“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. I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate,” Berman said. “Until then, our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption.”
The standoff opens up a fresh crisis at the Justice Department, places the leadership of the most prominent federal prosecutors office outside Washington in a precarious position and again raises questions about Barr’s willingness to steer the department to suit Trump’s political agenda.
Berman’s rebuttal came about an hour after the Department of Justice announced Trump intends to nominate Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who has never been a prosecutor.
A Justice Department official told CNN that Berman was offered other positions at Justice, including the head of the civil division, where assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt abruptly announced his departure this week. Berman declined.
A second source with knowledge of the matter said Berman was asked to resign and refused. Barr asked Berman to resign in an in-person meeting in New York on Friday, the source said.
A late-night announcement
The timing of the move, announced after 9 p.m. ET, immediately raised questions about the circumstances regarding Berman’s departure.
Last fall, Justice Department officials discussed replacing Berman with Ed O’Callaghan, a senior official, but then prosecutors indicted the Giuliani associates, a move that appeared to extend Berman’s tenure.
Trump and Barr have long taken issue with the office’s handling of various cases, but people close to the office believe its string of extremely high-profile investigations — including those of Cohen, Giuliani and Jeffrey Epstein — may have deterred Justice officials from pushing out Berman because his exit would have been certain to cause an uproar and charges of political interference. For the last several months, however, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic, the office has had a relatively quiet period, and some believe Barr seized that opportunity to oust Berman.
“The President, his associates, there may be anger about the way that some of the prior investigations were conducted, with respect to his former lawyer Michael Cohen and others,” he added.
Democrats on Capitol Hill immediately demanded answers.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the “late Friday night dismissal reeks of potential corruption of the legal process. What is angering President Trump? A previous action by this U.S. Attorney or one that is ongoing?”
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, said “America is right to expect the worst of Bill Barr, who has repeatedly interfered in criminal investigations on Trump’s behalf,” adding that he would invite Berman to testify.
Long-running feud with SDNY
Trump has frequently clashed with the leadership of the prosecutors’ office in New York and bristled at their investigations.
The President has been weighing replacing Berman since at least the middle of 2018, two people familiar with the matter told CNN, and Trump made references in private to replacing him since at least the summer of 2018, they said — only a few months after Berman assumed the role.
Trump has grown progressively more upset with the office since it began its investigation into Cohen, and believed its investigation into Giuliani was meant to damage him politically, one person said.
Before Clayton was nominated to the SEC post by Trump, he was a corporate lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell. If confirmed, Clayton would be the first non-prosecutor to lead SDNY.
Barr and Clayton have known each other for years, the Justice official said, and Clayton was planning to leave to go back to NY. He expressed interest in the SDNY job, the Justice official said, and Barr agreed.
Barr said Trump has appointed Craig Carpenito, currently the United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey, to serve as the acting United States attorney for the Southern District of New York until Clayton is confirmed. Carpenito will begin the role on July 3.
This story has been updated to include additional reporting, background information and reaction.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Caroline Kelly contributed to this report.