As we noted this morning, we still don’t know what was so urgent or important that Bill Barr tried to force the ouster of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York on Friday evening, even going so far as to lie in a series of press releases and letters about what US Attorney Geoff Berman had done (resigned; he hadn’t) or what President Trump had done (fired Berman; he denied it). But another critical question is why Barr thought he could trust the US Attorney from the District of New Jersey to handle whatever it was he couldn’t leave in the hands of Geoff Berman or his deputy Audrey Strauss, who would normally succeed him.
Just to refresh our memories, in Bill Barr’s original announcement he said that Geoff Berman was resigning, that he would be replaced on an acting basis by the US Attorney in New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, and that Carpenito would run both offices until Berman’s replacement, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton, was confirmed.
It now seems that Barr may not have leveled with all the folks involved.
I’ve learned that on Saturday morning Carpenito held a conference call with the entire staff of the New Jersey US Attorneys office and told them the first he heard of the whole thing was on Friday afternoon. Barr called Friday afternoon and asked him to step in to run the office in Manhattan on a temporary basis. Barr told Carpenito and Carpenito said he believed that Berman had already resigned or was in the process of resigning. In other words, he was told that Berman was leaving on his own volition and he agreed to take over on that basis. He was shocked to learn later in the evening that Berman hadn’t resigned at all and was refusing to do so.
On Saturday afternoon Barr upped the ante and claimed that Trump had fired Berman. A short time later Trump told reporters he wasn’t involved. So Barr had lied again. Or perhaps Trump was lying. Either way, Barr never produced a letter over Trump’s signature firing Berman, which he certainly would have if one existed. But in that follow up Barr did drop the Carpenito takeover idea and agreed to have Strauss succeed Berman.
It’s not clear to me and it may not have been in the conference call what Carpenito would have told Barr if he’d known that Berman wasn’t going voluntarily or in fact hadn’t resigned at all. But he seems to have been clear with staff that Berman’s late Friday night press release had changed the equation for him considerably.
We still don’t know why Barr picked Carpenito or, more importantly, what mess Barr was trying to make go away by trying to axe Berman in the first place.