WASHINGTON – Attorney General William Barr repeatedly pressed recently ousted Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman to resign during a chaotic weekend last month, the former prosecutor told a House panel Thursday.
Berman provided the account in an opening statement during a closed-door meeting with the House Judiciary Committee, following his abrupt firing as chief of the Justice Department's most prestigious office.
"The Attorney General said that if I did not resign from my position I would be fired. He added that getting fired from my job would not be good for my resume or future job prospects. I told him that while I did not want to get fired, I would not resign," Berman told lawmakers on the committee, which has been investigating allegations of politicization of the Justice Department.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
The testimony from Berman, whose office has investigated and prosecuted several of President Donald Trump's allies, is certain to raise additional questions about the Justice Department's independence from a White House that has purged watchdogs, whistleblowers and others seen as disloyal.
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Berman was fired last month after an extraordinary clash with Barr, who had announced that Berman was stepping down to make way for Trump's new nominee to lead the Manhattan office. Berman, however, insisted he had no intention of resigning until the Senate confirms a nominee, setting off a highly public fight over control of the pivotal office.
During a 45-minute meeting with Barr last month, Berman said the attorney general urged him to take a job as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Division, a post that was recently vacated.
"I responded that I loved my job and my colleagues ... I told the Attorney General that I was not interested in overseeing DOJ's Civil Division or in resigning," Berman said, adding that his office has "important investigations" he wanted to see through to the end.
Although the attorney general "was not at all dissatisfied" with his performance as chief prosecutor in Manhattan, Berman said, the Trump administration wanted to put someone else in the position. Trump intends to nominate Jay Clayton, the Securities and Exchange Commission chairman who has no experience as a federal prosecutor, to replace Berman.
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"I asked the Attorney General why I was being asked to resign prior to a nominee being confirmed. He said it was because the Administration wanted to get Jay Clayton in that position," said Berman, who believes Clayton was not qualified for the job because of his lack of criminal experience.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, described the effort to convince Berman to take a different position a "quid pro quo" that "gets awfully close to bribery," although he told reporters it's unclear if Barr's actions were criminal.
A summary of the interview released by Democrats accused Barr of lying. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and ranking member of the committee, countered with his own summary disputing that Barr had done anything wrong.
"The interview uncovered no evidence of misconduct, wrongdoing, or criminality. The interview uncovered no nefarious plot to stifle ongoing investigations," according to the summary.
During the conversation, Berman said he repeatedly made clear to Barr that he had no desire to leave his job and that "there was no job offer that would entice me to resign from my position." Based on Berman's account, his conversations with Barr did not give him the impression that his fate was sealed.
But hours later, the Justice Department released a statement saying Berman is "stepping down."
"That statement was false," Berman said.
Berman declined to speculate about Barr's motives, but he said the attorney general's "irregular and unexplained actions" were problematic, according to a transcript of the interview.
"The Attorney General praised me privately and publicly. Why then did he insist on me resigning (before the Senate confirms a successor)? Why did the Attorney General say that I was stepping down when he knew I had neither resigned nor been fired?" Berman said.
The Justice Department also said that Craig Carpenito, chief federal prosecutor in New Jersey, will take Berman's place until Clayton is confirmed by the Senate. Appointing Carpenito and not someone who's already in the Manhattan office was suspect, Berman said, and "would have been unprecedented, unnecessary and unexplained."
Berman said appointing an outsider "would have resulted in the delay and disruption" of ongoing investigations. Berman declined to mention any specific investigation.
Trump ultimately fired Berman at Barr's urging, although the president seemed to distance himself from the issue. Barr also ultimately backtracked from his appointment of Carpenito, announcing that Berman's top deputy, Audrey Strauss, will be temporarily in charge.
Berman said that's the outcome he preferred.
"Were I to resign, an outsider would have come in as acting U.S. attorney, and I was not going to permit that," he told lawmakers. "And I would rather be fired than have that done."
Berman's ouster came just days after former Trump national security adviser John Bolton revealed in a book that the president once sought to interfere in an investigation of a Turkish bank to pacify Turkey’s president, Recep Erdogan. The office is also investigating Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and two former Giuliani business associates.
Clayton's nomination appeared to be already in peril. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee had signaled he would not move forward with the nomination without sign off from New York's two senators – both of whom have called for Clayton to remove his name from consideration.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ex US Attorney Geoffrey Berman: AG Bill Barr pressed him to resign