NEW YORK – Former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara had a snickering response to news that his successor as top federal prosecutor was “stepping down” from the job.
“Doesn't sound like ‘stepping down,’” Bharara tweeted soon after the announcement was made Friday night that Geoffrey S. Berman was out.
He would know.
The Southern District of New York, an office older than the Justice Department itself, has long prided itself on the talent of its prosecutors, the import of its cases and an independence from Washington that has earned it the moniker of “Sovereign District.” But that hasn't spared officials from being fired by Washington, as both Bharara and Berman have learned in the last three years.
The top prosecutors there have enjoyed an outsize celebrity status, including Rudy Giuliani (later mayor of New York), James Comey (later FBI director) Mary Jo White (later head of the Securities and Exchange Commission) and Bharara himself, who was on the cover of Time magazine before becoming a popular presence on Twitter and legal commentator on television.
“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 in a follow-up tweet that reflected the mystery hitting the office again now.
Nobody would know better what Berman was going through than Bharara, who was told he could stay in his job in a late 2016 meeting with Donald Trump at Trump Tower only to be told to quit the post weeks after Trump's inauguration along with other prosecutors appointed by President Barack Obama.
Bharara refused to quit, only to be fired the next day.
It was a road map for Berman, who three years later defiantly issued a statement of his own that openly mocked the Justice Department's announcement.
“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," he announced in a statement shortly after 11 p.m. Friday. He showed up for work Saturday morning, telling reporters he was doing his job.
He explained he was appointed by Manhattan federal judges and wouldn't budge until a successor was confirmed by Congress.
“Our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption,” he promised.
Barr waited until midafternoon Saturday to respond in a way that mimicked what happened to Bharara.
“Unfortunately, with your statement of last night, you have chosen public spectacle over public service,” Barr wrote a day after meeting Berman in Manhattan and offering him other jobs. “Because you have declared that you have no intention of resigning, I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so.”
By dinnertime, Berman had said he would leave his job, saying in light of Barr's decision to “respect the normal operation of law” and ask the deputy U.S. attorney to step in, he'd go immediately.
Since Berman was appointed in early January 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his job security has always seemed precarious. A few months into his work, Manhattan judges appointed him permanently because Trump never formally nominated him.
Although he was recused from the prosecution of Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, he proceeded with other probes surely drawing interest from the president, including an insider trading prosecution of the first member of Congress to endorse Trump in 2016 and probes of Trump's inaugural fundraising and efforts abroad on the president's behalf by Giuliani.
“The most surprising thing is that he’s held on as long as he has,” said Danya Perry, a former Manhattan federal prosecutor who recently represented California lawyer Michael Avenatti in his recent fraud trial defense.
She said prosecutors were naturally anxious after the Justice Department statement saying he'd stepped down was released.
“It was immediately clear to anyone who knows anything about this world that he had not decided to step down, that he had been shown the door,” she said. “Everyone was watching and waiting for his response and were so gratified that he hit back hard in the finest traditions of the office and said: ‘Not so fast, we’re going to keep doing the good work that we do and you're going to have to actually follow the specific law here.'”
The Southern District of New York is known for drawing top talent that has targeted Wall Street executives, suspected terrorists and prominent government officials. Its work has even been fictionalized on the popular Showtime series “Billions.”
“It's a young, aggressive, hardworking group of lawyers who know they're not there for a very long time," said Michael Bromwich, an alumnus of the office and former Justice Department inspector general. “They're not fat, happy and contented. They're eager to do the work that they came there to do. And they're ambitious.”
In his 2018 memoir, Comey described receiving a call at home one month after the Sept. 11 attacks with an offer to become the U.S. attorney. As he broke the news to his wife, he wrote, her eyes welled up and she told him, “You can’t say no.”
In fact, he said yes, and went on to oversee one of the most headline-making prosecutions of its time — a false statements and obstruction case against famous homemaker Martha Stewart.
The office's alumni in Washington regularly meet up for casual gatherings, departing prosecutors are roasted in raucous, private gatherings, and hundreds gathered for a gala affair in 2014 in Manhattan.
In a testament to the office's prestige, Bromwich recalled a speech that Giuliani delivered to prosecutors in the office after arriving there in 1983 following a stint as associate attorney general, the No. 3 position in the Justice Department.
With a knowing look in his eye, Bromwich said, Giuliani boasted: “This is not just any U.S. attorney's office. This is the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York, and I view this as a promotion — not a demotion.”
Tucker reported from Washington.