A book by a former top federal prosecutor offers new details about how the Justice Department under President Donald J. Trump sought to use the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan to support Mr. Trump politically and pursue his critics — even pushing the office to open a criminal investigation of former secretary of state John Kerry.
The prosecutor, Geoffrey S. Berman, was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York for two and a half years until June 2020, when Mr. Trump fired him after he refused a request to resign by Attorney General William P. Barr, who sought to replace him with an administration ally.
A copy of Mr. Berman’s book, “Holding the Line,” was obtained by The New York Times before its scheduled publication Tuesday.
The book paints a picture of Justice Department officials motivated by partisan concerns in pursuing investigations or blocking them; in weighing how forthright to be in court filings; and in shopping investigations to other prosecutors’ offices when the Southern District declined to act.
The book contains accounts of how department officials tried to have allusions to Mr. Trump scrubbed from charging papers for Michael D. Cohen, his former personal lawyer, and how the attorney general later tried to have his conviction reversed. It tells of pressure to pursue Mr. Kerry, who had angered Mr. Trump by attempting to preserve the nuclear deal he had negotiated with Iran.
And in September 2018, Mr. Berman writes, two months before the November midterms, a senior department official called Mr. Berman’s deputy, cited the Southern District’s recent prosecutions of two prominent Trump loyalists, and bluntly asserted that the office, which had been investigating Gregory B. Craig, a powerful Democratic lawyer, should charge him — and should do so before Election Day.
“It’s time for you guys to even things out,” the official said, according to Mr. Berman.
The book comes as Mr. Trump and his supporters have accused the Biden administration and Attorney General Merrick Garland of using the Justice Department as a weapon after a judge authorized FBI agents to search his Florida house for missing classified records. Mr. Trump, who is a likely presidential candidate in 2024, has suggested without evidence that President Biden is playing a role in that investigation.
However, Mr. Berman’s book says that during Mr. Trump’s presidency, department officials made “overtly political” demands, choosing targets that would directly further Mr. Trump’s desires for revenge and advantage. Mr. Berman wrote that the pressure was clearly inspired by the president’s openly professed wants.
In the book, Mr. Berman, who as U.S. attorney did not give news interviews, offers new details about the high-profile prosecutions of defendants like Mr. Cohen; Chris Collins, a Republican congressman from New York; Michael Avenatti, the celebrity attorney and Trump antagonist; and Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier.
He says there were cases his office pursued without pressure from Washington, but in others, he makes clear his greatest challenges did not always have to do with the law.
“Throughout my tenure as U.S. attorney,” Mr. Berman, 62, writes, “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,” writes Mr. Berman, who is now in private practice. “Eventually, the rope snapped.”
Mr. Berman, who in the book describes himself as a Rockefeller Republican, had been a federal prosecutor in the Manhattan office from 1990 to 1994, and went on to become a co-managing partner of the New Jersey office of the law firm Greenberg Traurig.
During the 2016 presidential primary season, Mr. Berman volunteered for Mr. Trump’s campaign and later for his transition committee. Originally believing he might be named U.S. attorney for New Jersey, he was instead tapped to lead the Southern District, the most prestigious prosecutor’s office outside Washington. It handles Wall Street crime, international terrorism, political corruption and complex frauds.
Mr. Berman met briefly with Mr. Trump in the Oval Office in June 2017, where the president did most of the talking, he writes. Mr. Berman, a Princeton resident, said he would need to move into the city. Mr. Trump recommended he live in downtown Manhattan, near the Southern District’s offices, ahead of what could be a dicey confirmation hearing.
“Make it a rental,” Mr. Trump said.
In March 2018, some two months after Mr. Berman assumed the post, the Justice Department, then headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, referred to the Southern District the investigation of Mr. Craig.
The allegations focused on whether Mr. Craig, a White House counsel under President Barack Obama, had concealed work he had done years earlier for the government of Ukraine in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and whether he had lied to the Justice Department when questioned about it.
After months of investigation, the Southern District and Justice Department met with Mr. Craig’s lawyers, who made a presentation on his behalf. After his lawyers left and prosecutors voiced their opinions, Mr. Berman said he believed Mr. Craig was innocent of the FARA charge and so a jury would be unlikely to convict him on a false statement count.
A short time later, around mid-September, Mr. Berman writes, his deputy, Robert S. Khuzami, walked into his office and said he had just gotten a call from Edward O’Callaghan, the principal associate deputy attorney general, a political appointee. Mr. O’Callaghan, the book says, asked that the office “even things out” by charging Mr. Craig before Election Day.
In that conversation, Mr. Berman writes, Mr. O’Callaghan kept reminding Mr. Khuzami that the Southern District had just prosecuted Representative Collins and Mr. Cohen.
Mr. O’Callaghan said in a brief interview Wednesday that he had not read the book, but after being told by The Times of the statements attributed to him, called them “categorically false.”
Mr. Berman says he ignored the edict.
In mid-December, after a thorough investigation, Mr. Berman informed the department that his office was declining to prosecute Mr. Craig. He writes that he soon learned that the department had “peddled” the case to the U.S. attorney in Washington, where Mr. Craig was eventually indicted and tried on a single count of making false statements.
On Sept. 4, 2019, Mr. Craig was acquitted by the jury in less than five hours.
One of his lawyers, William W. Taylor III, said after the trial that the department had “hounded” his client “without any evidence and without any purpose.”
Mr. Berman writes: “The verdict felt like justice. Greg Craig should never have been prosecuted.”
One case Mr. Berman says his office had to fight to keep alive was the 2018 prosecution of Mr. Cohen, the president’s former lawyer. That August, Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations over payments he arranged before the 2016 election, to keep two women from disclosing affairs they said they had with Mr. Trump. Mr. Berman did not participate in the investigation, because he had volunteered for the campaign. But he was later briefed on interference in the case.
Before the plea, Mr. Berman writes, as his office was preparing a charging document detailing the crimes, a Justice Department official badgered his deputy, Mr. Khuzami, without success, to remove all references to a person identified as “Individual-1.” It was Mr. Trump.
In the months after Mr. Cohen’s guilty plea, Mr. Berman writes, the Southern District continued to pursue investigations related to possible campaign finance violations, apparently by others in Mr. Trump’s orbit.
But after Mr. Barr became attorney general in February 2019, Mr. Berman writes, he tried to kill the investigations and suggested that Mr. Cohen’s conviction on campaign finance charges be reversed, even though six months had passed since Mr. Cohen had entered his guilty plea.
In late February, he writes, Mr. Barr summoned the Southern District deputy, Mr. Khuzami, who was overseeing the inquiry, to challenge the legal basis for Mr. Cohen’s plea and “the reasoning behind pursuing similar campaign finance charges against other individuals.”
His office was ordered to pause all investigative steps, Mr. Berman writes. “Not a single document in our possession could be reviewed,” he says. Mr. Barr assigned the department’s Office of Legal Counsel to study the issue.
Mr. Berman says his office submitted memos to the department in support of its position, and top prosecutors met with officials in Washington, including Mr. Barr, to press the case.
In late April, with the case effectively stalled, Audrey Strauss, who had succeeded Mr. Khuzami as Mr. Berman’s deputy, finally persuaded Mr. Barr there was no basis to dismiss any charges against Mr. Cohen and that the investigations should be completed, Mr. Berman writes. The inquiry eventually ended without additional charges.
Mr. Barr did not respond to a request for comment.
After the September 2019 acquittal of Gregory Craig, Mr. Berman writes, he hoped the verdict would ease pressure on the Southern District “to prosecute yet another enemy of the president” — Mr. Kerry.
“That was naïve on my part,” Mr. Berman says.
Mr. Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran and a former longtime Massachusetts senator, was secretary of state under President Obama, a role in which he led the lengthy negotiations that produced the Iran nuclear accord — that administration’s signature foreign policy achievement. Mr. Trump, during his presidential campaign, called the deal “insane” and a “disaster.”
On May 7, 2018, Mr. Trump tweeted about Mr. Kerry’s “possibly illegal Shadow Diplomacy” — an apparent reference to reports of Mr. Kerry having conversations as a private citizen with Iranian and other officials.
Mr. Trump tweeted another attack on Mr. Kerry the next day — the same day Mr. Trump announced the United States was withdrawing from the accord.
On May 9, Mr. Berman writes, Justice Department officials told his office that it would be responsible for an investigation into Mr. Kerry’s Iran-related conduct. The F.B.I. would join the inquiry.
The focus was on the Logan Act, a rarely invoked 1799 statute barring private citizens from unauthorized negotiations with foreign governments, which has been criticized as unconstitutionally vague. Mr. Berman notes that no one has ever been successfully prosecuted under the law.
But, as he puts it, “The conduct that had annoyed the president was now a priority of the Department of Justice.”
Although Mr. Berman says he does not know what prompted the Justice Department to seek a Kerry investigation, “No one needed to talk with Trump to know what he wanted. You could read his tweets.”
Mr. Berman writes that Mr. Kerry did not learn of the investigation and it never leaked into the news media.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, kept tweeting. “Iran is being given VERY BAD advice by @JohnKerry,” he tweeted on the morning of April 22, 2019. “Big violation of Logan Act?”
That afternoon, Mr. Berman says, one of the co-chiefs of the Southern District’s national security unit got a call from a Justice Department official, asking why the office was delaying seeking an order to review “header information,” such as the date, recipients and senders of Mr. Kerry’s electronic communications. A more senior official pressed the issue again the next day with Southern District officials.
Mr. Berman writes that the pattern was “clear — and outrageous.” He said that the investigation began after Mr. Trump started tweeting “his displeasure about Kerry,” and a new tweet 11 months later prompted further prodding.
“And they were asking us, basically, what’s taking so long? Why aren’t you going harder and faster at this enemy of the president? There was no other way for me to look at it,” Mr. Berman writes.
A spokesman for Mr. Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Berman says that after an investigation of roughly a year, his office told the Justice Department that it would not prosecute Mr. Kerry.
A short time later, on Sept. 19, 2019, Mr. Berman writes, a senior adviser to the attorney general called to say that Mr. Barr expected to take the Kerry case to another U.S. attorney’s office, this time in Maryland.
That office reached the same conclusion as the Southern District had, Mr. Berman writes, “and the Kerry investigation just quietly died — as it should have.”
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