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U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman Steps Down After Standoff With Attorney General Barr

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

After a day-long standoff pitting the Department of Justice against, well, the Department of Justice, Geoffrey Berman is standing down. He is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who Attorney General William Barr announced Friday was stepping down. But Berman quickly said that was untrue. What followed was a confusing back and forth that even involved President Trump. Berman relented yesterday afternoon after Barr changed course on his successor.

Let's dig into this with a veteran of the SDNY. Mimi Rocah was assistant United States attorney there for more than 16 years. She's now a distinguished fellow in criminal justice at Pace University.

Thank you so much for being with us.

MIMI ROCAH: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do you make of all this - the back and forth between Barr and Trump and Berman? It's been extraordinary.

ROCAH: It has. It's incredible what just unfolded. But you know, I just want to be sure that we frame it in the right way, which is that Barr - you know, it is a back and forth, obviously, but Barr - you know, we can't lose sight of this. He tried, in the middle of the night, basically, on a Friday night, thinking no one would notice, I guess, to lie about trying to fire a U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

It's, one, that he was trying to get rid of him for - you know, we don't know exactly why, though there are a lot of things that come to mind, right? I mean, obviously, the Southern District of New York has been a place where there have been investigations of people surrounding Trump, including Giuliani. That's been widely reported. And the Southern District is historically independent from the Department of Justice, which we know Bill Barr does not like. He wants to control everything.

And so for no legitimate reason, not only did he try to get rid of a, you know, very competent U.S. attorney, but he lied about it in writing. He said that Berman resigned when he did not. And not - you know, I just - I feel like now that this has resolved itself somewhat, I'm afraid people are going to move on from those astonishing facts, and they should not.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Considering that he is, yes, the chief sort of law enforcement person in the country as the attorney general. May I ask this, though - has the attorney general given an explanation? I mean, there are, as you state, a lot of suppositions about why he did this. But has he given an explanation about why he wanted to get rid of Geoffrey Berman?

ROCAH: No, he hasn't. And that's very telling and particularly because, at least based on the reporting and even, I think, in Barr's own second letter, he would say it's not that they were trying to fire Geoff Berman for cause. I mean, there's been no argument made, even by Bill Barr himself, that somehow Geoff Berman was not doing his job, which I would find really, you know, uncredible (ph) - incredible anyway. But even Barr hasn't tried to make that argument.

They were offering him other very powerful positions, like head of the Securities Exchange Commission, head of the civil division of the Department of Justice. What he was trying to do was move Barr out of the - sorry - move Berman out of the position of control of the Southern District of New York, which has immense criminal power over various - you know, lots of things but including, you know, Trump allies like Rudy Giuliani, based on reporting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. There's an ongoing investigation of Trump's current personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. And the office - the Southern District prosecuted the president's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen. Now Audrey Strauss will be acting U.S. attorney, which means that the office is in the hands of someone with a legendary reputation for defeating Roy Cohn, Trump's mentor, in a Mafia case and the person who was running all the Trump investigations for the SDNY. What's the word from your former colleagues this weekend in the few seconds we have left? Have you spoken with any of them? And what's the feeling about Strauss?

ROCAH: So I never talk about conversations with people still in the Southern District if I feel like that's not appropriate. But I will say that amongst the alums of the Southern District of New York, we are all very proud of the way that Geoff Berman spoke truth. I mean, what he did is he said, you know, this is what happened - I mean, which seems so obvious. But the fact that he did that in this Trump era and, you know, countered Barr's lies is - it really shows his character. Audrey Strauss is a career prosecutor with integrity and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We'll have to leave it there.

ROCAH: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Mimi Rocah, former assistant United States attorney.

Thank you so much.

ROCAH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.