Holding the Line: Inside the Nation’s Preeminent US Attorney’s Office
My lead deputy, Robert Khuzami, received an urgent phone call from a top official at the US Department of Justice.
The midterm elections were less than two months away. The results would determine not just which party controlled the House and Senate but also if the next two years of the Trump presidency would be dogged by congressional investigations.
Khuzami spoke with Edward O’Callaghan, the principal associate deputy attorney general. Despite the convoluted title, O’Callaghan held a powerful position within DOJ. His message to Khuzami was unambiguous: it was time for me, Geoffrey Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and lifelong Republican, to take one for the home team.
I had been close to Khuzami since we worked together as young prosecutors in the Southern District in the early 1990s, and when I came back to take the top job, he agreed to join me. He came into my office and closed the door. “You’re not going to believe the conversation I had with O’Callaghan,” he said before sharing the details.
The top leadership at DOJ wanted me to bring criminal charges against Gregory Craig, a private attorney who had once been President Barack Obama’s White House counsel. And they wanted me to do so before Election Day.
Khuzami related that O’Callaghan told him, bluntly, “It’s time for you guys to even things out.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I said.
“I wish,” he said, “but no.”
The charges I was told to bring against Craig involved allegations that he had violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, while representing Ukraine’s former prime minister. Our office had been investigating the potential FARA violation for months. But DOJ’s rationale had nothing to do with evidence or law.
O’Callaghan kept reminding Khuzami that our office had just prosecuted two high-profile Trump loyalists—Congressman Chris Collins, a Republican from New York, and Trump’s private attorney, Michael Cohen.
We both understood that O’Callaghan was only the messenger. He was himself an alumnus of the Southern District with a solid reputation. Still, it was galling for those in our office who knew him to learn that he was the one delivering that message.
I ignored the edict. We investigated—thoroughly—but there was, at best, a marginal case to be made. Even if we were foolish enough to go forward, I doubted the charges would ever stand up in front of a jury.
This episode was not a one-off. It was part of a pattern. Throughout my tenure as US attorney, Trump’s Justice Department kept demanding that I use my office to aid them politically, and I kept declining—in ways just tactful enough to keep me from being fired.
I walked this tightrope for two and a half years.
Eventually, the rope snapped.
THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK, known as SDNY, or simply the Southern District, is not just one among ninety-three US attorney’s offices across the United States and its territories. George Washington appointed the district’s first prosecutor in 1789. The SDNY predates the Department of Justice by eighty years.
It is sometimes referred to as the Sovereign District of New York, which, as backhanded compliments go, is pretty much a classic of the form. What the moniker signifies is that the office is both admired and envied. Among the criminal class, it is feared. Its stubborn independence is sometimes read as arrogance.
But my resistance to Trump’s chosen leaders of DOJ was never a matter of pride or turf. It was about protecting a bulwark of the rule of law, a monument to our nation’s highest values.
Part of what gives SDNY its unique status is geography. The Southern District encompasses all of Manhattan along with the Bronx and six counties to the north of the city. Its headquarters, an unremarkable nine-story building at 1 St. Andrew’s Plaza in lower Manhattan, sits on the doorstep of Wall Street. Very little of any import or scale takes place in the world without some of the money behind it moving through New York’s financial institutions. That has long given SDNY not just a national but a global reach.
The office is a magnet for elite legal talent. There were 220 prosecutors who worked under me, including 15 in an office in White Plains. Commonly called AUSAs (the full title is assistant United States attorney), they were generally young, many of them in their late twenties or their thirties. But it was nobody’s first job. They came from top law firms, in many cases after first serving in prestigious judicial clerkships after law school.
All of them started out in our version of boot camp, a year in the general crimes unit. Everyone in the office worked long hours, including nights and weekends, for a fraction of the salaries they could earn in the private sector. It was collaborative work; the office functioned as one team.
We partnered on cases with agents from the FBI’s New York field office, which has its own legendary reputation, along with highly trained agents and officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration, New York City Police Department, Department of Homeland Security, Postal Inspection Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
The combination of these potent resources, both human and structural, sets the Southern District apart. It was the SDNY that won convictions against the financial fraudsters Bernard Madoff, Ivan Boesky, and Michael Milken. It prosecuted terrorism cases tied to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa. It put Francis Livoti, the New York Police Department cop who choked and killed Anthony Baez, behind bars. Seventy years ago, SDNY prosecuted the spying cases against Alger Hiss and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
I did my best to carry on this tradition during my tenure as US attorney. We pursued some of the nation’s most important and high-profile prosecutions: against Chris Collins, the congressman, who pleaded guilty to a brazen insider-trading scheme (and was later pardoned by Trump); Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and fixer, who was convicted on campaign finance and tax charges; and Jeffrey Epstein, the notorious sex trafficker of girls and young women who committed suicide in prison before we could bring him to trial. (The office later indicted and convicted at trial his close associate and accomplice, Ghislaine Maxwell.)
A case we brought against the Turkey-based Halkbank, for conspiring to violate US sanctions against Iran, demonstrated our ability to take on highly complex investigations that sprawl across national borders. I believe we improved life in New York, by convicting members of a brutal drug gang, known as Nine Trey, with the rapper 6ix9ine as our star witness, and by forcing the New York City Housing Authority to address horribly inadequate conditions endured by hundreds of thousands of its tenants. Our ability to use the power of the law to return paintings stolen by Nazis to the heirs of the families that once owned them was a source of deep satisfaction to me and many others within SDNY.
At all times, we strove to do our jobs without fear or favor. We prosecuted friends of the president. And we prosecuted one of his most persistent antagonists: Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who represented Stormy Daniels. A core objective in the preamble of the Constitution is to “establish Justice.” Inherent in that mission is that partisan political concerns do not enter into any decision making. That was our North Star.
IN THE PAGES THAT FOLLOW, I write about some cases in which we were allowed to do our jobs without interference from Main Justice, meaning the attorney general and those who work under him in Washington. I’ve done so because I think it’s important to show how things are supposed to work.
But from start to finish, over the whole course of my tenure at SDNY, there were too many times when it did not work that way and obstacles were put in our path. These were not bureaucratic snafus. They were attempts to aid the president’s friends and punish his enemies.
Some, though not all, of those roadblocks were put up by William P. Barr, who became attorney general on February 14, 2019, Valentine’s Day.
There’s an image of Barr that will follow him for the rest of his days. It is from June 1, 2020. He is shoulder to shoulder with Donald Trump in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church after a throng of mostly peaceful protesters have been forcibly cleared from nearby Lafayette Square. Trump is carrying a Bible, which he holds up for the cameras.
The president’s walk from the White House with Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Barr, the nation’s top law enforcement official, was a grotesque stunt on many levels. And it was something all Americans could see.
But there was much hidden from view about Barr and the Department of Justice during the Trump administration, and I believe it is essential to lay it bare. I do so not to settle scores but in the hope that daylight and transparency might prevent it from happening again.
Over the course of my tenure, demands came down from Main Justice that were overtly political—among the most outrageous of them, pressure to pursue baseless criminal charges against John Kerry, who had served in the Obama administration as secretary of state.
We were badgered, without success, to remove all references to “Individual-1”—President Trump—from the charging document against Michael Cohen.
In a case involving what questions could properly be asked as part of the US census, we were pressured not to reveal evidence indicating that a member of the president’s cabinet had omitted relevant information in testimony to Congress.
We did finally indict Halkbank, but it happened only after needless and improper delays and after a nose-to-nose confrontation I had with Barr.
My last interaction with Barr took place during a tense meeting inside his suite at the Pierre hotel in New York. His goal was to edge me out of my job, which he attempted to do by dangling a position he imagined I might like better. I made it clear I wasn’t interested. If I was replaced by his handpicked successor, an outsider to SDNY—which was his plan—it would have impeded, delayed, or possibly shut down any of a number of politically sensitive investigations.
Several hours after Barr and I met, on a Friday night, he issued a press release saying that I was stepping down. That was a lie.
A lie told by the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
I had certainly not stepped down and had no intention to do so; he had fired me, via press release. The first I learned about it was when people started calling and texting me.
I never granted an interview as US attorney. The testimony that I gave to Congress in July 2020 covered only the two days leading up to my departure from the job. No one from SDNY with knowledge of these matters has been interviewed or written about them. Until now, there has not been a firsthand account of what occurred in the Southern District of New York during the two and a half years I was its leader.
Part One. MAKE IT A RENTAL
1. OF COURSE I’M INTERESTED
2. WE ARE GOING TO LOSE COHEN
3. THE CENSUS QUESTION
Part Two. FRIENDS AND ENEMIES
4. IT’S TIME FOR YOU GUYS TO EVEN THINGS OUT
5. NEXT UP: JOHN KERRY
6. CHANGES AT THE TOP
7. TRUMP V. VANCE
8. LEV & IGOR
9. THE PARDONED
Part Three. PRIORITIES
10. BRINGING JUSTICE TO SEX TRAFFICKERS
13. EPSTEIN: THE AFTERMATH
14. A CEO AS DRUG LORD
15. PRESCRIPTION PAYOFFS
16. TERROR IN THE MAIL
Part Four. NEAR AND FAR
19. NINE TREY
20. A RENOIR COMES HOME
21. HALKBANK: A BREAKING POINT WITH BARR
Part Five. THE FINAL DAYS
22. ON COMING HOME
23. THE LAST DAY
|September 23, 2022
How to Read and Open File Type for PC ?