IT IS hard to fathom what Attorney General William P. Barr was thinking when he announced Friday that the country’s most prominent prosecutor, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman, was “stepping down.” Perhaps he thought that Mr. Berman would pretend that he had resigned simply because Mr. Barr released a statement indicating he had. Maybe he thought that announcing Mr. Berman’s departure on a Friday night would minimize attention. Instead, Mr. Berman quickly denied any intention to step away, leading to speculation about Mr. Barr’s motives — speculation fueled by President Trump’s contempt for the rule of law and Mr. Barr’s own sad record of politicizing the Justice Department.

In a Friday statement, Mr. Berman himself raised the possibility that his ouster would interfere in his office’s work. Mr. Berman has handled several high-profile investigations involving Trump associates, including the president’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and Mr. Trump’s current personal lawyer, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Berman was not popular in the White House or the Trump Justice Department.

Mr. Trump responded Saturday by firing Mr. Berman outright, with Mr. Barr claiming that the motive was simply to promote a “distinguished New York lawyer, Jay Clayton” to be U.S. attorney, not to sideline Mr. Berman. This was a puzzling explanation, given that Mr. Barr did not need to fire Mr. Berman to make way for Mr. Clayton; Mr. Berman could have continued to serve until and unless the Senate confirms Mr. Clayton. Moreover, Mr. Clayton lacks federal prosecutorial experience. Given the circumstances of his appointment, Mr. Clayton also would lack the credibility to lead the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office.

An attorney general interested in preserving the Justice Department’s reputation for integrity would not so cavalierly sideline a U.S. attorney with a record of independence merely to make way for someone he liked better. At best the episode reveals stunning amateurishness. Mr. Barr acts astonished that anyone might suspect worse. He dismisses as “obviously false” any suggestion that sidelining Mr. Berman might lead to inappropriate meddling in his office’s investigations.

In fact, it is not obvious. Not after Mr. Barr gutted the independence of the U.S. attorney’s office in the District in order to roll back prosecutions of two of the president’s lawbreaking friends. Not after he presided over the violent clearing of peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square, then blamed it on the crowd. And not after he misled the public about the contents of the Mueller report and sicced handpicked inquisitors on those who conducted the Russia investigation. What well of credibility did he expect to draw on when he moved against Mr. Berman? How can prosecutors anywhere in the country have faith that Mr. Barr will safeguard the independence of the Justice Department?

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