The unusual statement by the US Attorney in Manhattan, Geoffrey Berman, sets up a dramatic confrontation within the Justice Department over the high-profile position in a year when Trump is seeking reelection.
Berman leads an office known for prosecuting high-profile terrorism cases, Wall Street financial crimes and government corruption.
“I learned in a press release from the Attorney General tonight that I was ‘stepping down’ as United States Attorney. 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 for the Southern District of New York” (SDNY), Berman said in a statement.
Berman said that until a presidentially appointed nominee was confirmed by the Senate, the offices “investigations will move forward without delay or interruption.”
The statement came just hours after Attorney General William Barr in a surprise move said in a press release that Trump intends to nominate Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton, a former corporate lawyer, to replace Berman.
A Justice Department official, asked about Berman’s refusal to leave the post until a successor is confirmed, told Reuters the “timeline remains the same” as Barr had laid out in announcing the replacement.
Since being appointed to the post in January 2018, Berman has not shied from taking on powerful figures in Trump’s orbit.
He oversaw the prosecution of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, indicted two Giuliani associates and launched a probe into Giuliani in connection with his efforts to dig up dirt in the Ukraine on Trump’s political adversaries.
His office also brought a criminal case against financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with sex trafficking and found hanging in his jail cell in August 2019.
While the Senate considers Clayton’s nomination, Trump has appointed Craig Carpenito, currently the US attorney for the District of New Jersey, to serve as the acting US attorney for the Southern District, Barr said in his statement.
Berman, who served on Trump’s transition team, could not immediately be reached for comment. Berman had replaced Preet Bharara, who was himself fired soon after Trump became president.
Bharara said the timing and manner of the move to replace Berman was strange.
“Why does a president get rid of his own hand-picked US Attorney in SDNY on a Friday night, less than 5 months before the election?” Bharara wrote on Twitter.
Berman was never confirmed by the Senate, the usual process for appointing US Attorneys. Rather, he was appointed by the judges of the Southern District of New York. Because of this, it was not immediately clear whether Barr could force Berman out.
Clayton, a former Wall Street lawyer seen as a bipartisan consensus-builder during his time leading the SEC, also could not immediately be reached for comment.
“The Attorney General has known Jay Clayton for years and holds him in high regard,” the Justice Department official said, on condition of anonymity.
The official said that Clayton, who had been planning to leave the administration and return to New York, “expressed interest” in the US Attorney role in New York, and Barr “thought it was a good idea.”
Before Clayton joined the SEC, he was a lawyer in private practice at Sullivan & Cromwell, who specialized in public and private mergers and acquisitions.