I don’t envy Andrew McCarthy, the National Review contributing editor who writes about legal affairs. McCarthy is a smart and experienced lawyer who clearly thinks of himself as intellectually honest. But he also seems to conceive his job as explaining the constitutional operation of our government while minimizing references to the president’s massive unfitness for office. This makes intellectual honesty challenging. It’s a bit like submitting a detailed report on the crash of a passenger jet and only causally mentioning that the pilot was a kangaroo.
A case in point is McCarthy’s take on the dismissal of Geoffrey Berman, the interim U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York (USA-SDNY). In case you had not heard, late Friday, June 19, the Justice Department issued a press release with three announcements by Attorney General Bill Barr: (1) President Trump “intends to nominate” Jay Clayton (currently the SEC chairman) as the permanent USA-SDNY; (2) Trump “has appointed” Craig Carpenito (currently the interim U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey) to be the “acting” USA-SDNY effective July 3; and (3) Berman would “stepping down” from his position as the interim USA-SDNY.
Berman responded immediately by denying that he was stepping down and implying that he needed to stay on to protect the integrity of the SDNY’s investigations (which include politically sensitive investigations that could implicate the president’s personal or political interests). The next day, June 20, Barr wrote to Berman advising him that “[b]ecause 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.”
Noticeably absent from Barr’s letter was any claim that the president had asked for Berman’s resignation or had been involved at all prior to that day. Also unmentioned was any reference to the president’s alleged “appointment” of Carpenito that DOJ had announced the day before. Instead, Barr stated that by “operation of law” Berman’s deputy, Audrey Strauss, would become acting USA-SDNY, noting that “I anticipate that she will serve in that capacity until a permanent successor is in place.” The assurance regarding Strauss’s tenure was reportedly given as a concession for Berman to agree to leave quietly.
To add to the chaos, when asked about Berman’s departure, Trump told the press that he was “not involved.” The White House later “clarified” this statement to acknowledge that Trump had “signed off” on Barr’s recommendation that Berman be terminated. Whether this sign off occurred only after Berman refused to leave is unclear. There has been no other official or unofficial indication that Trump was involved in either Berman’s departure or the botched attempt to appoint Carpenito.
In two columns (June 20 and June 23), McCarthy defends the Trump administration against critics who conceive Berman’s firing to be part of an effort by the president and the attorney general to obstruct justice by derailing particular investigations that threaten Trump in some way. About this he is probably right, but he glosses over the incompetence, dysfunction and lack of accountability that have been so typical of this administration’s “personnel” actions. Continue reading “The Berman Firing, Congressional Oversight, and (Lack of) Presidential Accountability for the Exercise of the Removal Power”