© 2020 WKSU
Public Radio News for Northeast Ohio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Reasons Behind U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman's Firing

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

He resigned. He didn't resign. He's been fired. That's what we heard about Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, over the weekend. Attorney General William Barr led the charge to get rid of Berman. Berman's office has investigated and prosecuted several members of President Trump's inner circle. And now we're going to look at the cases that are still working their way through this office. Andrea Bernstein co-hosts the podcast "Trump, Inc." for WNYC.

Good to have you back with us.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: It's great to talk to you.

SHAPIRO: There was a lot of back and forth over the weekend about whether Berman was resigning or fired, who would replace him. And I'd like you to start with just the simple question, why did the Trump administration want him out? Do we know?

BERNSTEIN: The short answer is we don't know. And neither Barr nor Trump has said, nor has Berman given us any possible reason for his firing. We do know from Berman's statement on Friday that he, quote, "intends to ensure this office's important cases continue unimpeded." And I've heard from a number of people familiar with the office in the last couple of days, and they have all expressed concern that Barr and Trump do, in fact, want to affect a case because Barr has already intervened in cases involving Trump associates, including former political adviser Roger Stone and his former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

SHAPIRO: Well, beyond Stone and Flynn, tell us about where this office has exposed wrongdoing within the Trump inner circle.

BERNSTEIN: So there was the investigation of Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal attorney. He ultimately pleaded guilty to paying hush money to Stormy Daniels in the 2016 election. And what was so dramatic was that he stood up in court in the Southern District and said he had made the payments, quote, "at the direction of Trump."

SHAPIRO: Now, there are current investigations, some of which we know about, some of which we may not. What can you tell us about where the Southern District might still be looking that could raise alarms among President Trump's allies?

BERNSTEIN: So there is a number of possible threads, and then, as you say, there's something we may not know, perhaps. But Berman's prosecutors have also been looking at Trump's inaugural committee. They've looked at a bank favored by Turkey's president. But the most advanced case has to do with Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. It's an irony of history that Rudy Giuliani began his career in public life at the U.S. attorney for the Southern District. And in fact...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BERNSTEIN: ...His picture still hangs in the office. Last October, the Southern District indicted two Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, for making illegal campaign donations to Republican committees, some on behalf of a Ukrainian politician. They've pleaded not guilty. Berman had the two men arrested - again, dramatically - last October at Dulles Airport with one-way tickets to Vienna in hand.

SHAPIRO: Right.

BERNSTEIN: So that case is set to go to trial in February, and that's where Giuliani comes in. He's worked closely with Parnas and Fruman, trying to get an investigation of Joe Biden in Ukraine. And Giuliani was paid $500,000 by Parnas's company, Fraud Guarantee. That's what it's called. Concerns have been raised publicly that Giuliani might have been illegally lobbying the Justice Department on behalf of a Ukrainian client, which Giuliani denies. But if the Southern District were looking at that, it would mean that New York prosecutors would have to be questioning prosecutors at Main Justice. And that would be occurring just months before the election.

SHAPIRO: So now Berman has stepped down as U.S. attorney. And his deputy, Audrey Strauss, is the acting U.S. attorney, not somebody hand-picked by this White House. What do you expect that change means for the work of the office going forward?

BERNSTEIN: So it's hard to exactly know, but what we do know is that Barr's initial attempt to replace Berman with a hand-picked choice backfired. He didn't want Audrey Strauss. He had someone else in mind. Senator Lindsey Graham, whose committee would have to approve the appointment, said he wouldn't go along with that.

So now Berman is being replaced by Strauss, who's known as a no-nonsense prosecutor. People who know her say she's likely to proceed with the office's cases, politically sensitive or no. So this is one case where it looks like Trump wasn't able to fire an investigator who might be getting close to him or his associates.

SHAPIRO: That is Andrea Bernstein, co-host of the Trump, Inc. podcast on WNYC, speaking with us on Skype.

Thanks a lot, Andrea.

BERNSTEIN: So great to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.