The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before his ouster, U.S. attorney refused to join Justice Dept. rebuke of New York mayor

Geoffrey Berman arrives for a news conference in New York last fall.
Geoffrey Berman arrives for a news conference in New York last fall. (Seth Wenig/AP)

NEW YORK — Geoffrey Berman, whose abrupt ouster as Manhattan U.S. attorney has faced intense scrutiny from President Trump's critics, refused to support a Justice Department initiative late last week urging New York's mayor to ease certain coronavirus restrictions, a person familiar with the matter said Monday.

A letter from Eric Dreiband, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, was sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) on Friday afternoon, about four hours before an announcement from Attorney General William P. Barr publicizing Trump’s plans to replace Berman.

Berman on Thursday objected to signing Dreiband’s letter, which characterized de Blasio as having endorsed large public protests over the death of George Floyd while seeking to limit crowds allowed to gather for religious services, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the matter remains sensitive. As the Wall Street Journal first reported, Berman considered the move a political ploy that would needlessly jeopardize his office’s relationship with City Hall.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment.

Berman’s departure from the office on Saturday evening capped an extraordinary day-long standoff with Barr, who, for reasons that remain unclear, had sought to replace Berman with Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. During Berman’s tenure atop the U.S. attorney’s office, federal prosecutors have pursued a number of investigations targeting Trump’s interests and members of his inner circle — including the president’s current and former personal attorneys.

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A Justice Department official said over the weekend that Clayton was preparing to leave the SEC and that the New York job was seen as an avenue to compel him to remain with the administration. Congressional Democrats have refused to accept that explanation and demanded an investigation into Berman’s dismissal, calling the move an attempt by Barr to put the president’s personal interests above those of the American public.

Dreiband’s letter to de Blasio has raised other concerns.

The Justice Department distributed a copy of it to the media Monday afternoon along with a statement suggesting that, as a result of the federal government’s intervention, New York City would allow houses of worship to hold indoor services at 25 percent capacity.

Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for the mayor, called the Justice Department’s statement “totally false.” City and state officials announced their reopening plans earlier that day, she said, adding in a tweet that Dreiband’s letter was submitted several hours later and had “absolutely no bearing” on the city’s actions.

The letter publicized by the Justice Department indicates that de Blasio was welcome to discuss the matter with Dreiband directly. A copy of the letter shared with The Washington Post by a person close to de Blasio says instead that Berman would be the point of contact for any questions.

Barr met with Berman in New York on Friday to discuss the desire for a personnel change in the Southern District of New York, but it quickly became evident that each man had a different understanding following their conversation. Berman issued a pointed response to Barr’s news release saying that he would not step down and that he intended to ensure the office’s “important cases” could continue “unimpeded.”

Their standoff ended Saturday, when Barr informed Berman that Trump was firing him and installing Berman’s handpicked deputy, Audrey Strauss, to fill the top job while Clayton’s nomination is pending. Initially, the attorney general wanted the Manhattan job filled on an acting basis by the U.S. attorney in neighboring New Jersey. Barr’s critics suspected the move marked a first step toward suppressing investigations of consequence to the president, but Strauss’s appointment seemed to ease those concerns.

Acting U.S. attorney in New York expected to advance politically sensitive cases, safeguard office’s independence, colleagues say

Barr has faced backlash within the Justice Department and among Democrats for intervening in cases that involve those close to the president, including Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his friend and former adviser Roger Stone. Both were charged as part of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Monday that Barr was unaware that Berman had not signed Dreiband’s letter when the attorney general made his controversial announcement Friday night, adding later that when officials in Washington realized Berman was mentioned in the letter, they sent de Blasio’s office an updated version striking his name.

The mayor’s office could not immediately confirm having received two emails.