Then there is the third possibility, the most sinister: that the removal of Berman was a specific effort to interfere with a specific investigation. Berman’s office is currently investigating another presidential lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. And the Halkbank case is still ongoing. The most acute concern, therefore, is that the Berman firing was not retaliation for something he had already done, but an effort to prevent his office from doing something in the future. Trump does this as well. Don’t forget that the day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, he boasted to the Russian foreign minister that by dismissing Comey he had relieved “great pressure” on himself.
It is tempting to assume that Trump and Barr acted with urgency because Berman must have been about to do something politically dangerous to the president, that some investigation must have been coming to fruition. And that may be right; this far into the Trump administration, far be it from us to foreclose the possibility that something unexpected is lurking beyond the horizon. But revenge may also be, in itself, important enough to the president for him to take this step at an inopportune time. Or perhaps, for whatever reason, Barr believed that he had Berman on board to step into another role at the Justice Department or the SEC, and that releasing the news late on a Friday in the middle of a pandemic would lead to a shortened news cycle. Organization and planning have never been strengths of this administration.
This is not the first time President Trump has picked a fight with the Southern District of New York. He fired Berman’s predecessor, Preet Bharara, just months into his administration, and after Bharara rejected unwelcome overtures from the White House. Also, in 2018, the president asked Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to exert control over the ongoing SDNY investigation into Cohen—ironically, by placing Berman, who was already the U.S. attorney but had recused himself from the probe, in charge. And in his new book, former National Security Adviser John Bolton writes that Trump told Erdoğan that he would force the SDNY to scuttle the Halkbank investigation by putting in his own people.
Those last two efforts failed—and it appears that Trump’s latest gambit has as well. The office is, for the time being, in the hands not of a political crony of the president or a handpicked Barr protégé, but of Berman’s own chief deputy, Audrey Strauss, whom The New York Times dryly describes as “unlikely to be influenced by political motives.” The office’s leadership will probably not change anytime soon, since there is little prospect of getting a new nominee confirmed in a timely fashion, the election is coming up, and Democrats in the Senate would have a careful eye on the entire situation. So if the goal was to thwart some specific investigation, that seems unlikely to succeed.