Ex-U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman had a disagreement with top officials at the Justice Department the day before he was ousted over a letter the department wanted to send New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.
The letter sought to bash De Blasio for COVID-19 public health orders that limited religious gatherings in the city, according to the Journal. The Justice Department was critical of the policy in light of lack of enforcement of social distancing orders against recent protests, the Journal said.
On Thursday, Berman refused to sign on to the letter, the Journal reported. He believed the letter to be a “political stunt” — in the Journal’s words — and worried that it would strain his office’s relationship with the city.
Berman had voiced his objections to the letter throughout the drafting process, but Attorney General Bill Barr was not a part of those discussion, the Journal said. DOJ Civil Rights Division head Eric Dreiband has been the signatory on similar letters that the department has sent to other state and local officials over their COVID-19 public health orders. Usually the local U.S. attorneys have signed on as well.
It is not clear if the disagreement over the De Blasio letter was a factor in Barr’s decision to get Berman fired by President Trump over the weekend. The two met in person in New York on Friday, hours before the department announced that Berman was being replaced. But the Journal could not confirm that De Blasio dust-up was discussed at the meeting.
The Justice Department, under the directive of Barr, has been on a spree of public statements chastising local and state officials for their coronavirus public health orders — including orders that affect religious gatherings. Some of those statements have come in the form of legal filings that support private individuals challenging the orders in court. In other instances, the department has issued letters like the one Berman apparently refused to sign last week, or has pressured officials behind the scene to rethink their COVID-19 orders. The De Blasio letter has not been publicly issued.
Even before the Wall Street Journal report, there had been reporting of a vexed relationship between the Department of Justice headquarters in D.C. and the office that Berman led. (The Southern District of New York is sometimes called the “Sovereign District of New York” because of its independence streak.)
The office’s campaign finance charges against longtime Trump fixer Michael Cohen notoriously referenced reference to Trump as “Individual-1” in its charging documents (Berman was recused from that prosecution). There’s been speculation that some of the continued SDNY probes into Trump allies, including former Mayor and Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, may have been what led to Berman’s firing.
Some reports have also pointed to the interest that the Jay Clayton, the chair of the Security and Exchange Commission, had expressed to the administration about taking Berman’s job.
Clayton was announced as Trump’s choice to permanently replace Berman when the shake-up was announced Friday evening. Berman, however, refused to step down immediately, issuing an extraordinary press release later Friday that said the shake-up was news to him. He stepped down on Saturday after the department made clear that Berman’s current deputy would be allowed to lead the office in an acting capacity. The department had previously said that another U.S. attorney would take over for Berman in the interim.