In June of 2020, the country was still in the throes of the COVID pandemic, and dealing with the prospect of a wild presidential campaign being waged in the middle of it. We were all glued to the TV watching doctors explain what happens when you go on a ventilator and looking at graphs that showed skyrocketing cases and death rates. There were a lot of important stories in that strange time that sort of passed under the radar. One of them was Attorney General Bill Barr’s firing of Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Now Berman has written a book about his time working under the Trump administration, “Holding the Line,” and it’s fascinating. The corruption of the Department of Justice under Barr was worse than we thought.
As most readers likely know, the Southern District of New York amounts to a sort of super-office within the Justice Department because it handles most of the big white-collar crimes emerging from Wall Street and the financial industry, and many national security and organized crime cases.. For better or worse, it’s known to operate with a great deal of independence from DOJ leadership in Washington. On a Friday night in late June of 2020, Barr released a statement saying that Berman was stepping down as U.S. attorney for the SDNY and would be replaced by Jay Clayton, then-chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who had no prosecutorial experience. Since that appointment must be confirmed by the Senate, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, would step in on a temporary basis.
All this came as a surprise to nearly everyone involved — but no one as much as Berman himself, who had absolutely not resigned. He issued this statement of clarification:
Barr had offered the SEC job to Berman, who had refused. So Barr tried an end-run of sorts, and Berman was having none of it. Berman’s comment that “our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption” certainly suggested that Barr was firing him because Berman wasn’t doing the AG’s bidding on certain cases.
In fact, only the president can fire a U.S. attorney, and Barr told Berman the next day that Donald Trump had done so, issuing a letter accusing Berman of “choosing spectacle over public service.” Weirdly enough, Trump denied this, forcing the White House to say later that he’d “signed off” on Berman’s dismissal, suggesting that he might have nodded at some point while not quite listening on his way to the golf course. Berman didn’t try to fight this more or less legal firing, but insisted that Barr agree to appoint Berman’s assistant U.S. attorney, Audrey Strauss, rather than some Trump’s toady.
There was a lot of speculation at the time about why Barr wanted Berman out. His office had pursued a number of cases involving Trump associates and Trump himself, including the prosecution of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen and of two associates of Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, which led to investigations of Giuliani himself. Berman had also investigated Trump’s endlessly corrupt inaugural committee along with a number of Trump-connected people involved with the Turkish state bank. Trump had been purging the DOJ of people he felt to be disloyal for some time, starting with his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions. He’d also fired Sally Yates, the acting attorney general who preceded Sessions, FBI Director James Comey and then Acting Director Andrew McCabe, as well as FBI general counsel Dana Boente and a bunch of inspectors general. It wasn’t mysterious why Barr believed Berman had to go. Trump had been complaining that the New York office was “filled with Democrats out to get him” and Barr (at that point) was eager to serve as his hatchet man.
Berman’s book pretty much confirms all that speculation and more. He refreshingly names names and declines to canonize those who only had their “come to Jesus” moment after Trump lost the election, especially Barr but other Jan. 6 committee witnesses as well, such as former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen.
Perhaps the most damning anecdote in the book concerns the case of Greg Craig, Barack Obama’s former White House counsel, who was accused of violating the law that requires lobbyists for foreign governments to register as such. Barr and his henchmen were determined to get a Democrat after the Justice Department had prosecuted Michael Cohen and former Rep. Chris Collins, a Trump supporter. Berman reports that Barr pushed him to indict Craig, saying, “it’s time for you guys to even things out. We want you to indict Greg Craig before the midterm election.” Berman refused, so Barr gave the case to a different office willing to bend to his will. Craig was indicted — and then acquitted on all charges in less than five hours — but Barr was able to demonstrate to his boss that he was getting the job done. They’d put a Democrat through the wringer.
Berman cites one incident after another in which Barr tried to shut down Trump-related investigations, replaced prosecutors with yes-men or set up bizarre systems to protect Trump’s cronies.
A year or so before that, Trump had tweeted, somewhat mysteriously, “Iran is being given VERY BAD advice by @JohnKerry and people who helped him lead the U.S. into the very bad Iran Nuclear Deal. Big violation of Logan Act?” I doubt Trump knew anything about the Logan Act, an archaic law that is almost never enforced, but apparently the Justice Department snapped to and immediately ordered up a prosecution in New York. Berman says he also headed this one off.
Throughout the book Berman cites one incident after another in which Barr either tried to shut down investigations into cases involving Trump or replaced DOJ deputies and prosecutors with more compliant yes-men. He set up bizarre systems designed to protect Trump’s cronies, taking the investigation of Rudy Giuliani’s antics in Ukraine away from the New York office and putting it in the hands of a loyalist U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, who refused to share any information with SDNY.
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Perhaps the most corrupt action was Barr’s interference in the Halkbank case, an investigation of top officials of the Turkish state bank who were violating the Iran sanctions. When the DOJ moved toward a criminal indictment of the bank, Barr stepped in and instead produced a weird “global settlement” deal that involved secret non-prosecution agreements with top Halkbank officials. Berman refused to keep those secret, saying that would be defrauding the court, but Barr insisted on the rest of it. The U.S. government evidently got nothing in return for this favor, but it’s entirely possible thatTrump did. John Bolton made clear in his own book that all of this was about Trump’s business dealings in Turkey.
This was just the story of one prosecutor in one office, albeit the most famous and important one in the federal system. And we already know what Barr did with the Mueller report and the prosecutions against Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, let alone how Trump himself abused the pardon power.
Of course Trump and his supporters in the right-wing media are now running around screeching about how Joe Biden has “weaponized” the Justice Department with its probes into Trump’s attempted coup and insurrection, and now the case of the stolen government documents at Mar-a-Lago. That’s just right-wing projection: They did it, so now they have to accuse the other side of doing it too. They may even believe that Biden and Merrick Garland are as cynical and corrupt as they are, since that’s how they believe the world works.
But the truth is that Donald Trump and his accomplices were corrupt then, and they’re corrupt now. That includes Bill Barr and all his henchmen who went along with it, at least until that particular game stopped being fun. That may be how it works in TrumpWorld but the rest of us don’t believe that. We would like to see some accountability for all this — and maybe even a little old-fashioned justice.