The Trump administration late on Friday sought to abruptly remove the Manhattan US attorney who has overseen several investigations of the president’s allies.
The move triggered a remarkable power struggle as the US attorney, Geoffrey Berman, said he would not leave until the Senate had confirmed his replacement.
“I learned in a press release from the attorney-general tonight that I was ‘stepping down’ as United States attorney,” Mr Berman said. “I have not resigned, and have no intention of resigning.”
“I will step down when a presidentially appointed nominee is confirmed by the Senate,” he added.
William Barr, the US attorney-general, had announced Mr Berman’s departure on Friday evening and his replacement as Jay Clayton, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
A spokeswoman for Mr Barr did not immediately return a request for comment on Mr Berman’s statement.
The attempted “late Friday night dismissal reeks of potential corruption of the legal process”, said Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate.
Mr Berman has led the Manhattan US attorney’s office since 2018 but he was never formally nominated by Mr Trump or confirmed by the Senate.
Instead, he was unanimously confirmed by the judges of the Manhattan federal district court under a law that allows such appointments where vacancies have not been filled by the president.
Since then, he has overseen several highly charged cases involving allies of Mr Trump.
These included the prosecution of Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal lawyer, and an ongoing investigation of Rudy Giuliani, Mr Trump’s current lawyer.
Last year Mr Berman indicted two associates of Mr Guiliani for a scheme that involved ousting the US ambassador to Ukraine.
He also brought an indictment against Jeffrey Epstein, the late disgraced financier, and the Turkish lender Halkbank.
This week excerpts from a book by John Bolton, Mr Trump’s former national security adviser, claimed the US president had told his Turkish counterpart in 2018 he would halt the case against Halkbank. The lender was ultimately charged last year.
Mr Trump has called his former national security adviser a liar. Halkbank has denied wrongdoing in the ongoing case.
Mr Berman on Friday evening said that until his replacement was confirmed by the Senate, “our investigations will move forward without delay or interruption”.
The dispute came ahead of congressional testimony next Wednesday by two prosecutors about the “politicisation” of the justice department under Mr Barr and Mr Trump. Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives judiciary committee who subpoenaed the prosecutors, said he would now also invite Mr Berman to testify.
The US attorney’s office for the southern district of New York is known for prosecuting high-profile white-collar criminals as well cases involving international corruption as its jurisdiction includes major US financial institutions.
The appointment of Mr Clayton would mark a significant shift for the office, which has historically been led by lawyers with experience not just as prosecutors, but who have served in that office.
Mr Clayton, by contrast, was a longtime Wall Street lawyer and adviser to big banks before his appointment to the SEC by Mr Trump in 2017.
Under his reign as SEC chairman, the regulator has led a crackdown on cryptocurrency fraud and downgraded investigations of wrongdoing on Wall Street in favour of a focus on frauds that directly hit retail investors.
“His management experience and expertise in financial regulation give him an ideal background to lead the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and he will be a worthy successor to the many historic figures who have held that post,” said Mr Barr in a statement.
Mr Barr said the US attorney in New Jersey, Craig Carpenito, would lead the Manhattan office in an acting capacity from July 3 until Mr Clayton was confirmed by the Senate.
A spokeswoman for Mr Clayton did not immediately return a request for comment late on Friday.