This weekend, in what looks like a blatant effort to kneecap investigations into Donald Trump and his cronies, Attorney General Bill Barr tried to Friday Night Massacre the Southern District of New York and install a crony in the office's top spot. Apparently, he thought no one would notice if he burned the Justice Department down in the dead of night. Whoopsie! But Bill Barr is as incompetent as he is corrupt — which is to say extremely — so he wound up botching the job, ensuring that a career civil servant will run SDNY for the foreseeable future. And once again, we have been saved from disaster because the Trump administration is stacked with fuckups.

We came in on Saturday to write it up for you (hello, money us!), but the short version is that Barr tried to fire Geoffrey Berman, the US Attorney for SDNY, by Friday News Dump. At 9:30 p.m., Barr announced Berman would be "stepping down" immediately; Craig Carpenito, US Attorney for New Jersey and Chris Christie's pal, would be stepping into the job; and Trump would be nominating SEC chair Jay Clayton, a lawyer with virtually no criminal or prosecutorial experience, to take Berman's place.

At 11:15, in a tweet that is still up on SDNY's Twitter page, Berman announced he hadn't stepped down, that Barr couldn't fire him, and that "our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption." Which sure as hell sounds like he's accusing Barr of trying to get him out of the way to delay and interrupt ongoing investigations, right?


The Justice Department went noodling off to tell CNN and the New York Times that Clayton, who recently played golf with the president, had asked for the job, and Barr was just doing him a favor by clearing the way. Which is just obvious horseshit — Clayton will never get confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which still allows home state senators, i.e. Schumer and Gillibrand, to block nominees.

And even if it were a real nomination, that doesn't account for Barr's insistence that Carpenito needed to take Berman's spot RIGHT FUCKING NOW. The fact that Barr tried to promote Berman out of SDNY, offering him a position as head of the Justice Department's Civil Division, makes it even clearer that Berman wasn't fired for incompetence. He was shoved out of the way for some very specific, as yet unknown, reason. Could it be that SDNY has already indicted chucklefuckers Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, and is looking into their pal, at Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani? Or is it the investigation of Turkey's Halkbank, which Trump promised Recep Tayyip Erdoğan he would make go away, according to John Bolton? Maybe it's an investigation of Trump's creditors at Deutsche Bank? With Trump's business headquartered in New York, the possibilities really are endless.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Berman refused to sign a letter on Friday "criticizing New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for the city's enforcement of social-distancing rules to block religious gatherings but not recent street protests." Sources told the Journal that "Mr. Berman voiced strong objections to the letter, particularly its assertions that Mr. De Blasio imposed a double standard, and described the letter as a political stunt that would strain relations between his office and the city," but it's not clear if this was the "real" reason for the firing. We will just note here that this is the third version of events (after "Clayton asked for the job" and "Berman was going to get promoted") floated by DOJ sources.

An SDNY prosecutor told the Daily Beast, "I can't say whether Rudy or anyone else would have been indicted by now, but the slowdown in grand jury activity [due to coronavirus] has been a blessing for the subjects of the white collar criminal investigations." So, make of that one what you will. (Also we would like to just note that the Daily Beast is now using "fucks up" in news headlines, because hell yeah, it is.)

After we posted on Saturday, Barr fired back in a typically snitty letter, saying, "Unfortunately, with your statement of last night, you have chosen public spectacle over public service. Because you have declared that you have no intention of resigning, I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so."

The Attorney General, who has no authority to fire a US Attorney or appoint a new one, offered no explanation for his lie about Berman's resignation on Friday night. Presumably, he managed to stick a letter saying "Geoff, U SUCK and UR FIRED" under Trump's nose before the Tulsa rally, and Trump's signature made the dismissal official. Although, as usual, observing that one of his loyal minions had waded into a pile of shit, Trump declined to offer assistance.

But Barr's letter, although phrased as a righteous smackdown, was actually a major concession both to Berman and to the appropriate functioning of the American justice system.

"By operation of law, the Deputy United States Attorney, Audrey Strauss, will become the acting United States Attorney," Barr wrote, "and I anticipate that she will serve in that capacity until a permanent successor is in place." So no henchman will be shoved in to ratfuck the SDNY, and a career prosecutor, who has been in the office since the 1980s, will take over until Clayton gets confirmed. Which will be never. And since Berman was recused from several cases involving Trump anyway, functionally we're at status quo ante. (Gonna go out on a limb and guess that Carpenito and Clayton would have opted not to recuse from Trump-adjacent litigation. Just a feeling, ya know?)

Having headed off whatever dirty play Barr was planning, Berman graciously resigned on Saturday night. And lest it get lost in the shuffle here, Berman is a lifelong Republican who could have taken the promotion and let Barr wreck SDNY the way he did the federal prosecutors office in DC. Remember that Barr had US Attorney for DC Jessie Liu unceremoniously defenestrated right before prosecutors were forced to walk back the Stone sentencing recommendation and drop the charges against Michael Flynn. So big props for Geoffrey Berman, thanks to whom SDNY lives to fight another day.

Trump could still try to fire Strauss and take over that office. But House Democrats are already demanding hearings on this weekend's fuckery, and considering the way the whole thing blew up in their faces, another blatant attempt to take over SDNY would be an extremely expensive political move during an election, kinda like drawing a giant red X saying LOOK FOR CORRUPTION HERE.

So, well played, Mister Attorney General. Slow fuckin' clap.

[WSJ / WaPo / CNN]

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Liz Dye

Liz Dye lives in Baltimore with her wonderful husband and a houseful of teenagers. When she isn't being mad about a thing on the internet, she's hiding in plain sight in the carpool line. She's the one wearing yoga pants glaring at her phone.

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