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Trump Fires Top U.S. Prosecutor as William Barr Moves to Expand “Imperial Presidency”

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After a dramatic weekend showdown, the Trump administration has ousted Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan who led multiple prosecutions and investigations into allies of the president. We look at the extraordinary measures U.S. Attorney General William Barr took to protect Trump, with New York Times Magazine writer Emily Bazelon, who has profiled Barr. “He believes in a very strong executive presidency, a kind of imperial presidency in which a huge amount of power resides in the president,” she says of the attorney general.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The House Judiciary Committee is launching an investigation into President Trump’s firing of U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who’s overseen the investigations of several associates of President Trump, as well as President Trump’s inaugural finances.

Last Friday night, Attorney General William Barr issued a press release claiming Berman was, quote, “stepping down” as head of the Southern District of New York. But then Berman announced he was not resigning and had no intention of resigning. This led to a dramatic showdown that resulted in Barr sending Berman a letter on Saturday saying President Trump had fired him. But then Trump distanced himself from the move, saying, quote, “I’m not involved.” Attorney General Barr initially tried to install his own pick to head the SDNY, but by Saturday it was announced Berman’s deputy, Audrey Strauss, would temporarily take over.

As U.S. attorney, Berman had led the investigations of Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen and Trump’s current attorney Rudy Giuliani. Berman also led the prosecution of a Turkish bank which had ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called the late-night shake-up a, quote, “inartfully handled personnel decision.” Graham chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would have to approve Trump’s intended replacement for Berman, Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Jay Clayton, who has no experience as a prosecutor. For now, Graham has said he will defer to New York Democratic senators. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York has already called on Clayton to withdraw from the nomination. More than a hundred former Manhattan prosecutors have also condemned the Berman firing.

For more, we’re joined by Emily Bazelon, staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, where she’s profiled Attorney General William Barr. She’s also a lecturer and senior research fellow at Yale Law School.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor Bazelon. Can you explain what happened, what eclipsed the rally until President Trump had so few people there that even that dominated the news, but this, what Schumer called, on Friday night and Saturday, the “Friday night massacre”? Take us step-by-step through this, and what Barr has done, and who Barr is.

EMILY BAZELON: So, Geoffrey Berman, who was the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, was a powerful figure who was bringing investigations, pursuing investigations, that seemed like they were the kinds of investigations that President Trump has objected to. Berman was investigating Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s close associate, for his involvement in the Ukraine affair, asking whether Giuliani violated the laws that require you to register if you’re lobbying for a foreign agent, because of what Giuliani was doing there. And there was also an investigation —

AMY GOODMAN: And he’s Giuliani’s former — isn’t he Giuliani’s former law partner?

EMILY BAZELON: Yes. So we have this — right, exactly. That’s part of the spectacle. And you also had Berman’s office investigating a bank in Turkey that President Trump has expressed interest in protecting.

So, Berman’s out there doing this work as an independent prosecutor. And then, Friday night, we have this explosive news that Barr has very suddenly — that he’s going to resign. And then Berman, amazingly, says, “No, I’m not stepping down. I have no intention to do so.” And it becomes clear that Barr actually does not have the power to fire Berman, because of the way he was appointed. He was actually appointed by a three-judge panel in New York, not confirmed by the Senate. And so, it seems like the route to getting rid of him is actually that Trump has to fire Berman himself.

So, while they’re working that out on Saturday, Berman is getting something important that he wants. Berman wants to be succeeded by his second in command, presumably to make sure that these investigations continue and that there’s some independence preserved in the Southern District of New York. Berman was able to pull that off.

Then, Trump supposedly is involved in this firing, as is legally necessary, but then claims that he was not involved. And so, you just have a real sort of fumbling going on in the administration. And the underlying issue here, this is one of many sudden personnel moves, and they’re the kind of moves that really do threaten the independence of the Justice Department and the kind of wall that we have that separates investigations from the president.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I mean, what’s amazing here is, you know, first, you had the Trump administration firing Preet Bharara, and they put in a total Trump ally. I mean, you have Geoffrey Berman, who was Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer’s law partner. He raised money for Trump, not only gave his own money, but raised other money for Trump. And then he moves in and starts seriously investigating even Trump’s inaugural finances — is that right? — the inauguration committee. He also investigated Jeffrey Epstein before he died, and investigated now the guards who were responsible for Jeffrey Epstein in jail before his apparent suicide. So, there is a lot going on here with Berman, who was a Trump ally.

EMILY BAZELON: That’s right. And Berman is also the person who charged Michael Cohen in that whole affair that exposed the cover-up, the hush money for women who President Trump allegedly had affairs with. So you have a really independent prosecutor who was doing his job.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about how, in the end, Berman agreed to leave, after being fired by the president, though the president said he had nothing to do with it. Explain who’s replacing him and why that mattered to Berman.

EMILY BAZELON: Berman is being replaced by his second in command, Audrey Strauss, and she has a reputation for being a strong figure in the office. She was actually running some of these sensitive investigations. So, I think, from his point of view, he was protecting the office, at least in the immediate time period, from an outside takeover. He did not want Barr’s preferred person to be installed. That’s the U.S. attorney in New Jersey. He wanted his own deputy to continue.

And then there’s this big question mark about whether the administration’s preferred permanent replacement, the head of the SEC, is going to be confirmed. He’s someone, as you said at the top of the hour, who really has no experience as a prosecutor. That’s quite a surprising pick for leading this important and very large office in New York. So, it’s really unclear what will happen beyond this interim appointment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about William Barr, the man you profiled for The New York Times. Talk about his power at this point. I mean, you see this, even for Trump, sort of catastrophe unfold, unless they just wanted to get rid of him so much that, for them, this isn’t a catastrophe. And this just comes after, a few weeks after, apparently Barr took responsibility for the attack on the peaceful protesters outside the White House that led to that calamitous walk of Trump and Barr and Ivanka Trump and the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the defense secretary, walking through Lafayette Park and then Trump holding up this upside-down Bible in front of a church. That, Barr took responsibility for and then said, “We didn’t use chemical irritants,” and then said pepper balls weren’t chemical irritants. What is Barr’s role here in protecting the president?

EMILY BAZELON: So, there are two things about William Barr that have made him a really excellent match for President Trump and this administration, and they’ve been true about Barr since the beginning of his career. The first is that he believes in a very strong executive and presidency, a kind of what people call an imperial presidency, in which a huge amount of power resides in the president. So, in 2018, Barr, unsolicited, sent a memo to the Justice Department saying of the president, he alone is the executive branch, and criticizing the Mueller investigation. That was before Barr got his current job, and it sort of read, in this weird way, like an audition memo.

The second thing about William Barr is that he is a devout Catholic who’s very conservative and sees religious people as being at war with secular people. He talked about that in a speech back in the 1990s. He reprised really the same language in the Justice Department in speeches last year. And so, you see this sense that there’s this pitting of values between the religious and the secular, and it turns Barr into a kind of warrior for religious, devout people. And that, one can imagine, is part of why he’s so eager to be in this position and to be wielding this power.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Barr’s worldview, what else he wants to accomplish as attorney general, and why you think he is so significant and perhaps dangerous.

EMILY BAZELON: Well, I think we have this attorney general who really does not respect or does not see the same boundaries and limits around the president’s power when it comes to these investigations. So, Barr was the attorney general when the Mueller report came out. We saw him not present all of that report, talk about it in a way that a federal judge later said had been misleading. And that was all to Trump’s benefit. That protected Trump from the kind of full implications of this report.

And Barr has also been involved in some of the very conservative judicial picks that come through this administration. You know, one of the chief justifications for supporting President Trump that Republicans continue to give is this really efficient assembly line of judges. They really are confirming hundreds of judges. And Barr is close with Leonard Leo, the head of the Federalist Society, who’s also had a really key role in selecting these judicial candidates. And this is a completely legal and above-board part of his role, but it’s clearly something he really supports, to change the ideological portrait of the federal judiciary so that President Trump is able to leave in office many judges who are deep conservatives.

AMY GOODMAN: And his past history, very quickly, who he served in his role in the Reagan administration?

EMILY BAZELON: In the Reagan administration, he had a kind of deputy role, and he started talking about this idea of a very strong presidency. Then he became the attorney general under George H.W. Bush, and he was in favor of pardoning Caspar Weinberger, the former defense secretary, and five other people involved in the Iran-Contra affair. And so, you see then, as well, this willingness and interest in kind of shielding —

AMY GOODMAN: Including Elliott Abrams.

EMILY BAZELON: Yes. So you see this role that Barr was playing then in pardons. Now we have a backing away from the Michael Flynn investigation, which has been really shocking to a lot of lawyers, this decision, after Flynn has pled guilty, to say that the Justice Department has no interest in pursuing these charges against him, and a decision to intervene to make Roger Stone’s sentence more lenient. Both Stone and Flynn, obviously, were close with President Trump. And by taking these actions, Barr, he made it so that Trump would not have to directly pardon either Stone or Flynn, right? So it’s using the power of the Justice Department to go easy on them, rather than asking Trump to take a more politically divisive step of intervening himself.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily Bazelon, I want to thank you for being with us on this issue, but stay with us. We’re going to go to a quick break, and then I want to get your take on the Trump rally in Tulsa. Emily Bazelon is staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, where she has profiled Attorney General William Barr. We’ll link to that profile. She also teaches at Yale Law School and is author of Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration. She’s co-host of the Slate podcast Political Gabfest. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Stay Gold” by the South Korean K-pop group BTS, who, along with their fans, recently donated more than $2 million to Black Lives Matter. Part of the reason for the low turnout of Trump’s Tulsa speech on Saturday, it’s believed, may be attributable to K-pop fans, who said they flooded the Trump campaign with ticket reservations prior to the event, with no plans of attending. But there was no cap on the number of people who could get tickets, so they didn’t prevent supporters of Trump from also getting tickets.

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