Attorney General William Barr’s ham-fisted firing this weekend of Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the powerful Southern District of New York, bears all the hallmarks of the Trump administration’s shoot-first-aim-second approach to governing. But the clumsiness of Berman’s ouster shouldn’t overshadow the chilling message sent by the firing of a veteran federal prosecutor who was leading possible criminal investigations that could implicate Trump associates, Trump family members, and possibly the president himself.
It’s important to step back and see Berman’s ouster for what it really is: the latest in a series of firings, interventions, and interferences by Attorney General Barr and his loyalists that appear designed to benefit Trump and the president’s political allies. Before Berman’s removal, there was DOJ’s decision to drop its own case against Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Before Flynn’s case, there was the DOJ’s last-minute intervention to seek a more lenient sentence for ex-Trump adviser Roger Stone, who was found guilty of lying to Congress and obstructing a federal investigation. Before Stone’s case, there was Barr’s attempt to mislead the media and the public about the conclusions of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Current and former prosecutors say they fear that the actions of the Barr-led Justice Department undermine the independence and integrity of the nation’s top law enforcement agency. Career prosecutors have responding by withdrawing themselves from cases, quitting their jobs, or even agreeing to appear before Congress as whistleblowers. On Wednesday, two career prosecutors who worked on the Stone case will testify before the House Judiciary Committee to speak about Barr’s time as attorney general. Jonathan Kravis, a federal prosecutor who worked on the Stone case and quit his job entirely after DOJ higher-ups tried to help Stone, wrote in a recent op-ed that the department’s actions in the Stone and Flynn cases “will do lasting damage to the institution.”
The implications of that damage are far from trivial. Political interference, perceived and real, undermines the DOJ’s mission and hurts the morale of the thousands of career employees committed to ensuring the fair and impartial administration of justice. For the federal prosecutors across the country tasked with enforcing the law on behalf of the American people, their job becomes more difficult when lawyers on the opposite side of the courtroom demand that their clients receive the same preferential treatment as Michael Flynn, say, or Roger Stone. (A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.)
If you also consider the recent firings of several inspectors general and Trump’s repeated attacks on the judiciary, you’re left with the notion that President Trump sees himself as above accountability. “What makes autocrats autocrats is that they believe they alone possess all power in a society and that no one and no institution can properly check that power,” says Ian Bassin, a former associate White House counsel under President Obama who now runs Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group dedicated to resisting authoritarianism in the U.S. “If courts try to check his power, he calls them ‘so-called judges.’ If inspectors general try to check his power, he removes them. If the Department of Justice tries to investigate him, he politicizes it and fires U.S. attorneys.”
The Justice Department, like any big institution, is flawed and sometimes makes mistakes. But what’s alarming with the William Barr-led DOJ is the pattern of recent high-profile decisions, says Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney and senior FBI official.
“The thing we’re seeing that’s different and distressing is that their judgments seem always to cut in the same direction and always on behalf of the president and his allies,” Rosenberg says. “This tells you that they may not be errors but rather a systemic failure of leadership grounded in bias and preference. If they were just errors, the errors would be randomly distributed, and they would cut in different directions, including occasionally against presidential allies. You wouldn’t expect the current pattern of favoritism. What’s so deeply troubling is that pattern.”
David Greenberg, a Rutgers University professor and historian, says SDNY prosecutor Geoffrey Berman’s removal — first announced on a Friday night, with no warning to Berman — reminded him of one of the Justice Department’s darkest days during Richard Nixon’s presidency. On the night of October 20, 1973, President Nixon fired Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and accepted the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General Bill Ruckelshaus in what was dubbed the Saturday Night Massacre. To this day, Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre remains one of the most searing examples of political interference at the Justice Department.
Greenberg, author of the book Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, says he traces the pattern of worrying decisions inside the Trump-era Justice Department back to the firing of former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and FBI Director James Comey in early 2017. The pattern of firings and suspicious interference by the Trump-era DOJ, he says, is “clearly in line with Nixonian behavior and then some.”
“In a normal political environment, a week’s worth of Saturday Night Massacres would lead to [Trump’s] impeachment and probably removal,” Greenberg says. “But we have such dysfunctional polarization, primarily the unwillingness of Republicans to step up and see Trump for what he is, that we’re not in a normal political environment anymore.”
Ian Bassin, who served as an Obama White House counsel from 2009 to 2011, says the abuses of the Nixon administration led to the creation of a firewall between the White House and the Justice Department to prevent the politicization of the justice system. “There have been scandals in the intervening years that chipped away at that wall, but Trump has eviscerated it,” Bassin says. “His playbook has been to use the Department of Justice to go after his opponents (Andrew McCabe, the Durham probe), protect his friends (Roger Stone, Michael Flynn), and remove people who dare to investigate him (Jim Comey and now Geoffrey Berman).”
Another, more recent comparison to Trump’s removal of prosecutors and law enforcement officials was the firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006 and 2007 by President George W. Bush. The Bush White House had discussed removing U.S. attorneys who were not “loyal Bushies,” and evidence later disclosed showed that Bush adviser Karl Rove had a role in the affair. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would later resign after coming under intense pressure for his role in the firings and for misleading statements he made about government mass surveillance programs.
Channing Phillips, the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, says he thought the Justice Department and the White House had learned its lessons from the Bush team’s. But Geoffrey Berman’s ouster, Phillips says, pushes even further into politically fraught territory for the Trump administration.
That’s due in part to the fact, according to news reports, Berman’s now-former office, the Southern District of New York, had opened investigations related to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, and the operations and financial dealings of Trump’s 2017 inaugural festivities.
“Not only was [Berman’s removal] mishandled — it was far worse,” Phillips says. “This is unprecedented and worrisome not only for the career employees who work for the department but I think any citizen who wants the fair and impartial administration of justice. Are they fulfilling their mission? I think a strong argument could be made that the answer is no.”
And the Trump administration’s attack on the justice system doesn’t end with the Barr-led Justice Department. In recent months, the administration removed multiple inspectors general in key oversight positions in what appeared to be retaliation for decisions that angered the president or his allies.
One of the ousted inspectors general was Steve Linick, the State Department’s top watchdog who had opened several probes focusing on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and an arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Another was Michael Atkinson, the IG for the intelligence community who had vetted and alerted Congress to the whistleblower complaint that helped spark the Trump impeachment inquiry. A third was Glenn Fine, who before he was fired was oversee the spending of the Trump administration’s multitrillion-dollar coronavirus relief package, one of the largest of its kind in U.S. history.
After Trump’s election, as Ian Bassin, the former Obama White House lawyer, prepared to launch his new group Protect Democracy, he and his colleagues consulted with scholars who’ve studied autocracy in places such as Venezuela, Hungary, and Turkey and asked those scholars a question: What do modern autocrats have in common?
“It turns out the playbook is the same all over the world,” Bassin says. “There are basically six things all modern autocrats do and one of them is they politicize independent institutions like law enforcement.” In other words, they capture the referees.
“From the get go, you’ve seen Trump try to do that,” Bassin says.