US President Donald Trump has fired a top federal prosecutor who refused to leave office, Attorney General William Barr has said.
Geoffrey Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said on Friday that he had learned he was “stepping down” in a press release.
Mr Berman insisted he would stay in post and continue his investigations.
On Saturday, Mr Barr told him that he had asked the president to remove him immediately, and that he had done so.
Top US Democrat Nancy Pelosi said she believed there were “base and improper motives” in the sacking of Mr Berman and that the Attorney General “must be held accountable for his actions”.
Mr Berman oversaw the prosecution of a number of Mr Trump’s associates.
They included the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen, who has served a prison sentence for lying to Congress and election campaign finance fraud.
Mr Berman’s department has also been investigating the conduct of Rudy Giuliani, Mr Trump’s current personal lawyer.
What happened on Friday?
The row between the attorney general and the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan began on Friday night, when Mr Barr issued a press release announcing that Mr Berman was “stepping down” after two-and-a-half years in the post.
Mr Berman had “done an excellent job”, achieving “many successes on consequential civil and criminal matters”, Mr Barr said.
He added that the president intended to nominate Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Jay Clayton, who has never served as a federal prosecutor, as Mr Berman’s successor.
Image captionWilliam Barr accused Mr Berman of choosing “public spectacle over public service”
Not long afterwards, Mr Berman issued his own a statement, saying he had learned he was “stepping down” from the press release.
“I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position,” he added. “I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate.”
Mr Barr’s announcement appeared to surprise the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham.
He who said that Mr Clayton’s nomination would still have to be approved by New York’s two Senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who are both Democrats.
Senator Schumer tweeted: “This late Friday night dismissal reeks of potential corruption of the legal process. What is angering President Trump? A previous action by this US Attorney or one that is ongoing?”
Why did the president fire Mr Berman?
In a letter to Mr Berman released by the justice department on Saturday, Mr Barr wrote that they had discussed his intention to appoint Mr Clayton as US attorney and that he had hoped for co-operation “to facilitate a smooth transition”.
“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,” he added.Skip Twitter post by @BBCJonSopel
This is unbelievable. The handling has been woeful. Just read this statement from the US Attorney General. #Berman #WilliamBarr pic.twitter.com/g5R4U3euLq— Jon Sopel (@BBCJonSopel) June 20, 2020
End of Twitter post by @BBCJonSopel
Mr Barr said Mr Berman’s deputy, Audrey Strauss, would become the acting US attorney and that he anticipated she would serve in that capacity until a permanent successor was in place.
Later, Mr Berman said that “in light of Attorney General Barr’s decision to respect the normal operation of law” and to have Ms Strauss become acting US attorney, he would be leaving office, “effective immediately”.
“It has been the honour of a lifetime to serve as this District’s US attorney and a custodian of its proud legacy, but I could leave the district in no better hands than Audrey’s.”
“I know that under her leadership, this office’s unparalleled AUSAs [Assistant United States Attorneys], investigators, paralegals, and staff will continue to safeguard the Southern District’s enduring tradition of integrity and independence,” he added.
Before leaving the White House for a campaign rally in Tulsa, President Trump told reporters that the decision to fire Mr Berman was a matter for the attorney general.
“That’s his department, not my department. But we have a very capable attorney general, so that’s really up to him. I’m not involved.”