“Trump turned DOJ into his personal law firm”: Senate probes prosecutor’s claim of Trump corruption

Judiciary committee investigating Geoffrey Berman's claims of "multiple instances of political interference"

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published September 13, 2022 9:21AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Bill Barr (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Bill Barr (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The Senate Judiciary Committee announced on Monday that it will probe former federal prosecutor Geoffrey Berman's claim that former President Donald Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr sought to pressure federal prosecutors to go after Trump's perceived enemies.

Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland that the panel will investigate claims of "astonishing and unacceptable deviations" by DOJ officials to pursue partisan prosecutions and Barr's efforts to replace Berman with a "Trump loyalist." Berman's claims "indicate multiple instances of political interference," Durbin wrote, calling on the DOJ to produce all documents and communications related to Berman's claims.

"It violated all the norms and traditions of the Department of Justice, which is supposed to be independent from politics," Berman told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Monday. "Trump turned the department into his own personal law firm. He put in people who would do his bidding. And they would, you know, target Trump's political enemies and assist Trump's friends. And it was a disgrace."

Berman, a Republican former Trump transition official who served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York until he was fired by Trump in June 2020, wrote in his upcoming book "Holding the Line" that he "resisted the worst of the attempted interference, whether from Main Justice or the White House," according to an excerpt published by The New York Times.

Berman was fired by Trump after he refused Barr's request for him to resign after he led the prosecutions of multiple Trump allies, drawing allegations of "corruption" at the DOJ.

Berman wrote that Barr pushed his office to drop its prosecution of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who was ultimately convicted on eight federal charges, including campaign finance violations that he claimed were on behalf of Trump. Berman told ABC News that DOJ officials also pressured his office to remove references to Trump from Cohen's indictment.

"On the eve of Cohen's guilty plea, main Justice tried to get our office to remove any reference to Individual-1, who was President Trump," he said. "They were unsuccessful in that venture. And they were unsuccessful in every attempt to politically interfere with our office. We held the line in every instance."

Berman also claims that Justice Department officials pressured his office to prosecute former Secretary of State John Kerry. Trump publicly called for Kerry to be prosecuted over claims that he discussed the nuclear deal with Iranian leaders while Trump was in office. When Berman declined to prosecute Kerry, DOJ officials asked another U.S. attorney's office, which likewise declined, according to Berman.

"That was truly outrageous," Berman told ABC News on Monday. "President Trump attacks John Kerry in two tweets saying that Kerry engaged in possible illegal conversations with Iranian officials regarding the Iran nuclear deal. The very next day, the Trump Justice Department refers the John Kerry criminal case to the Southern District of New York. Two tweets by the president and the John Kerry criminal case becomes a priority."

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Berman also claimed that DOJ officials told his deputy to charge Democratic lawyer Greg Craig ahead of the 2018 midterms to "even things out." Craig was ultimately prosecuted by the U.S. attorney's office in D.C. but was acquitted by a jury in less than five hours of charges that he misled the DOJ about his lobbying work for Ukraine.

"The Justice Department told us, 'Hey, you have just indicted two allies of the president, Chris Collins, who is a Republican congressman from upstate New York, and Michael Cohen, who was the president's lawyer and fixer, and it's time for you guys to even things out and indict a Democrat before the midterm election,'" Berman told ABC News. "It was something we never heard or seen before."

Berman told Maddow that he was fired while he was investigating Trump ally Steve Bannon's "We Build the Wall" case. Bannon and others involved in the scheme were convicted of funneling hundreds of thousands in donations to themselves from Trump supporters that backed a privately-built border wall. Bannon was ultimately pardoned by Trump, which Berman called "outrageous," but has since been indicted by state prosecutors in New York. Bannon has pleaded not guilty.

Former Republican White House ethics chief Richard Painter argued on Monday that Berman's firing was illegal.

"Berman was fired because his investigations got too close to Trump," he tweeted. "A president may NOT remove a federal officer in order to obstruct justice. That's a crime and should be charged as such."

Former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner also called for "abuse by Barr" and others at DOJ to be addressed.

"As a former career DOJ prosecutor," he wrote, "Bill Barr's corruption/weaponization of DOJ to protect Trump and persecute Trump's critics makes me want to f'ing scream!"

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Bill Barr Donald Trump Geoffrey Berman John Kerry Michael Cohen Politics