A remarkable turn of events last night unfolding in New York City and Washington, DC. As you see in the headline, Bill Barr attempted a Friday Night purge of the Manhattan US Attorney’s office but it seems not to have gone according to plan. (This in itself is evidence of Trump’s ebbing power.) Barr announced that Geoff Berman, the US Attorney in the Southern District of New York, had “resigned” “effective immediately” and was being replaced on a temporary basis by the next door US Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Craig Carpenito. Barr further announced that President Trump would be nominating Jay Clayton, currently the Chairman of the SEC, to become the next US Attorney. There are a million things off about this; scheduling it on an exhausted Friday evening just puts a seal on that reality. But when I left off early yesterday evening I had at least assumed that Barr and Trump had made sure that Berman was going along with this or going quietly.
That turned out not to be true.
It is important to remember that Geoff Berman is no Deep State hanger-on. He is a former law partner of Rudy Giuliani and a campaign donor to Trump’s 2016 campaign. Indeed, the fact that he ended up being appointed formally by the judges in the district stemmed from the dubious circumstances of his original appointment. Berman served on Trump’s presidential transition team and Trump personally interviewed Berman before agreeing to nominate him to the New York position. The head of that office has jurisdiction over Trump’s literal home turf. It’s a key position.
In any case, Berman decided not to go quietly and publicly put the lie to Barr’s press release announcing his ouster. “I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning, my position, to which I was appointed by the Judges of the United States District Court of the Southern District of New York,” he announced in a press release late yesterday evening.
Bill Barr’s profound corruption no longer requires explanation. He is unquestionably the most corrupt Attorney General in American history. It is in the nature of Trumpism however that the corruption and bad acting are so widespread that we are left uncertain just why this particular action took place. Something was and apparently is afoot that required Berman’s immediate removal. We just don’t yet know what it is. There are numerous possibilities. Berman’s office has overseen investigations of numerous Trump associates. Most of the President’s own business dealings would come under the office’s jurisdiction. Perhaps critically, many investigations which have offended foreign potentates friendly to President Trump are also housed in this office.
Again, we just don’t know.
I’ve seen it speculated that this wasn’t about any one thing or something on the immediate horizon but rather the culmination of lost confidence in Berman’s stewardship of the office. And it is true that despite Berman’s political pedigree he has at least allowed to go forward a number of investigations which have proven damaging to the President or his allies. But this slow burn theory is all but impossible to reconcile with the jagged roll out of the decision or its proximity to the election.
As we learned almost 15 years ago, Presidents have the power to oust US Attorneys. But when they choose to do so off schedule, surreptitiously and without clear cause it is almost always with a corrupt intent.
We can say more about the broader context. The Trump administration, with its most effective enforcer, Bill Barr, is looking at an uphill reelection campaign, a range of still unfolding civic catastrophes, and trying to make the most of its executive power while it still holds it. Abusing the powers of office look like the clearest path to retaining those powers past next January. But since the rampant abuses are now adding to the marked deterioration of support for Trump’s presidency the incentives for bad acting only grow more perverse, the need to keep doubling down or upping the ante only grows. As I noted above, Berman’s public refusal is itself a sign of Trump’s ebbing power. It all points to a perilous six months of mounting instability, wrongdoing and criminality in which Trump, his lieutenants and toadies see the need to keep rolling the dice, fomenting chaos in the hopes some version of it works in his favor.