“What I will commit to do, which is what I commit to in my current job, is to approach the job with independence and to follow all ethical rules,” Clayton responded.
The U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York is pursuing investigations involving Trump, his company and close associates, including the president’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Maloney noted. She called the timing of Berman’s ouster “very suspicious.”
Attorney General William P. Barr announced Clayton’s nomination in a news release late Friday night. Barr indicated at the time that Berman intended to step down early next month and that the U.S. attorney in neighboring New Jersey would run the Manhattan office on an interim basis. In a remarkable statement of his own issued hours later, Berman said he had no intention of resigning — and that he was determined to ensure “important cases continue unimpeded.”
The highly unusual standoff ended Saturday evening, after Barr informed Berman that Trump had decided to fire him. The attorney general then named Berman’s deputy, Audrey Strauss, as the office’s acting head.
In an interview with NPR on Thursday, Barr dismissed critics’ assertions that he replaced Berman as a means to protect the president. “Given the current environment, anytime you make a personnel move, you know, conspiracy theorists will suggest that there’s something, [that] there’s some ulterior motive involved,” he said. “But I felt this was actually a good time to do it because I was not aware of anything that that should, in reality, give rise to that.”
While Thursday’s hearing was intended to focus on the economy, it was quickly overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Clayton’s nomination — a process he characterized in a prepared opening statement as “multifaceted and uncertain,” nor one that requires “my current attention.”
Nevertheless, Clayton, who lacks prior experience as a prosecutor, repeatedly touted his work alongside federal prosecutors in his role atop the SEC, and highlighted his network of associates who are alumni of the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office.
A number of the panel’s Democrats grilled Clayton on his role in the shake-up at the federal prosecutor’s office — asking whether he knew that Berman did not intend to step down and when it was first discussed he might take over there.
Clayton said he raised the possibility with Trump and Barr the weekend before Berman’s firing. He would not say whether he knew Berman would be forced out, only that he had been weighing options for a return to New York with his family.
“Let me be clear about this issue: This was entirely my idea,” Clayton said. “This is something I had been thinking about and talking about with others as to where I could go.”
Republicans chastised the panel’s Democrats for steering the hearing off course. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.) said he wanted to remind fellow lawmakers that they were not holding a confirmation hearing.
“If someone would like to participate in that, they are more than welcome to run for Senate,” he said.
Clayton’s nomination to take over the job may already be in trouble. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, signaled over the weekend that he would honor the “blue slip” veto system granting home-state senators a say in whose nomination proceeds. Several Democrats, including the Democratic senators from New York, have called on Clayton to withdraw his nomination.
Among the Trump administration’s critics, Berman’s firing marks the latest in a series of attempts to thwart investigations that threaten the president, his family and associates. The House Judiciary Committee is actively investigating what Democrats call Barr’s “unprecedented politicization” of the Justice Department and in recent days contemplated whether to pursue the attorney general’s impeachment.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that she would not support doing so, saying instead that Democrats’ focus would be on beating Trump in November’s election.
“One hundred and thirty one days from now, we will have the solution to many problems, one of them being Barr,” Pelosi said in an interview with Washington Post Live.