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Attorney General Barr In Standoff With Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And we wake to an extraordinary standoff between the attorney general of the United States and one of his U.S. attorneys. Last night, William Barr announced that Geoffrey Berman, the top federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, was, quote, "stepping down." Mr. Berman, however, announced two hours later he's staying put, not stepping down. His investigations will continue. The Southern District, of course, is the powerful office known for prosecuting financial crimes and corruption, including Michael Cohen, the president's former personal lawyer.

Elie Honig is a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District. Thanks very much for joining us.

ELIE HONIG: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What do you discern as the reason for this sudden announcement five months before an election?

HONIG: Well, to me, given all the circumstances, this is clearly a political takeover of the historically independent Southern District of New York. I worked there for eight years, and the office is, I think, best known for being independent. The joke, I guess, in legal circles is to call it the sovereign district of New York, meaning, essentially, the SDNY does what it pleases and whatever's right without regard to politics.

And when you look at the timing of this, the fact that it was announced late on a Friday night, the fact that the attorney general immediately was caught in a misleading statement when he said the U.S. attorney was stepping down - in fact, the U.S. attorney was not voluntarily stepping down - and you look at all the important pending cases in the SDNY right now - all the potentially politically damaging cases in the SDNY right now - the only logical conclusion to me is that this is a political move.

SIMON: What are some of those cases?

HONIG: Yeah. Well, only based on what we all know publicly, we know that Rudy Giuliani is under investigation. We know the SDNY already has indicted Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who are two business associates of Rudy Giuliani. We know the SDNY is investigating the other potential co-conspirators in the Jeffrey Epstein case. We know the SDNY is investigating Deutsche Bank, where the president does his banking. We know the SDNY has charged the Turkish bank Halkbank - which we've seen in the John Bolton book and elsewhere - the president and William Barr tried to get the SDNY to back off of. So I think you can see there's - even just on what we all know here as the public, there are a lot of cases that have major potential political implications.

SIMON: So Mr. Berman says he's not going to step down until a presidentially appointed U.S. attorney is confirmed by the Senate. Does that essentially ask the U.S. Senate to decide whether the administration has acted lawfully and responsibly, and do it in an election year?

HONIG: Well, I think where this is going to end up is the courts. I mean, legally, it's clear that if the president nominated somebody and that person went through and was legally - and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate, that person would take over immediately upon Senate confirmation. Even Mr. Berman said in his statement that he will remain in office unless and until that happens. The question is, can the president just fire or move aside the U.S. attorney, barring that? In other words, can the attorney general to the president just say, you're out; somebody else is in?

SIMON: Well, the Senate could also conceivably say, you know, look; Jay Clayton might be a fine public official, but we want to know more about why you want to get rid of this U.S. attorney.

HONIG: Oh, sure. It's very much within the Senate's purview to say, we want to know more; we want to hold a hearing, and we do not agree to confirm - in which case, the president will have to try somebody else or take it to the court. This could end up in the courts. We have a real conflict in federal law here as to whether the president can remove the U.S. attorney without going through that whole Senate confirmation.

SIMON: Yeah. What about the prosecutors in the office? I wonder if you're in touch with any of them. We've got about half a minute left. What do you hear and what do you expect?

HONIG: Well, let me say this. The people who work every day in that office, like I did, are nonpolitical public servants, and they will always remain that way. That said, this has to really hurt morale there to see politics injected into an office that has so long prided itself on being nonpolitical and being independent.

SIMON: Elie Honig is a former state and federal prosecutor, spent eight years in the office of the Southern District of New York. Mr. Honig, thanks so much for being with us today.

HONIG: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.