How Trump's DOJ pressured the Southern District of NY to aid the White House
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Geoffrey Berman, served as U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, leading the southern district for two and a half years during the Trump administration. In his new memoir, he writes that Trump's Justice Department kept demanding that Berman use his office to aid the administration politically, and Berman kept declining in ways just tactful enough to keep him from being fired. But after walking the tightrope for 2 1/2 years, he says the rope snapped. Berman was told to resign but resisted and was then forced out in an unconventional way.
One of the cases he says that the Justice Department interfered with involved Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Berman also alleges that after the Southern District prosecuted two prominent Trump allies, the DOJ pushed it to prosecute Democratic lawyer Greg Craig before Election Day to, quote, "even things out." The book led Senator Dick Durbin, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to open an investigation last week into Berman's allegations that the Trump Justice Department pressured the Southern District to create positive outcomes for the administration. Berman's memoir is titled "Holding The Line."
Geoffrey Berman, welcome to FRESH AIR.
GEOFFREY BERMAN: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: So Dick Durbin, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has opened this investigation into the Justice Department's interference in the Southern District's prosecutions in an attempt to support then-President Trump. Did you expect that? Did you hope for that kind of investigation?
BERMAN: Well, Terry, it didn't surprise me that there would be a congressional inquiry. I mean, the instances of interference are so unprecedented and outrageous and violate the cardinal rule of the Department of Justice that partisan political concerns are not supposed to enter into decision-making. So it didn't surprise me. And I welcome the congressional inquiry, and I'm going to cooperate any way I can with it. And hopefully - I'm sure it's going to shed new light on the conduct of the Justice Department under Bill Barr and others, and increase transparency, which is what my book is all about.
GROSS: You served under three attorney generals - Jeff Sessions, then the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker and then Bill Barr. What charges do you think are possible?
BERMAN: Well, you know, I haven't really focused on charges or criminal conduct. What my book identifies is a kind of repeated violation of the norms and standards - critical norms and standards that govern the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice has to remain independent of politics. It's supposed to be unbiased. And what happened was President Trump treated the Department of Justice like his own personal law firm, and he put people in charge there who did his bidding. And so, you know, the Justice Department targeted political enemies of the president and assisted political allies of the president.
GROSS: What do you think the involvement of Donald Trump will be in this investigation?
BERMAN: Donald Trump let everyone know where he stood on issues. His tweeting was ubiquitous. So I'm not sure, you know, with a congressional investigation how many documents are going to be shown to and from the White House. But the leadership in the Department of Justice knew where Trump stood. Trump made no secret of it. He would tweet about it all the time. And so I am hopeful that there's going to be documents and emails between and among main Justice employees that we at the Southern District were not privy to. Obviously, you know, we knew all the communications from the Department of Justice to the Southern District of New York. But, you know, there was a curtain behind the Department of Justice, and we were never privy to those communications. So hopefully those kind of documents and emails will come to light.
GROSS: So you're going to be very interested in the outcome of this, OK.
BERMAN: Yes, I am.
GROSS: In the introduction, you describe how after the Southern District had prosecuted two high-profile Trump loyalists, Congressman Chris Collins of New York and Michael Cohen, who was Trump's personal lawyer, one of your associates was told it was time to even things out. And the message was to bring criminal charges against Greg Craig, a private attorney who'd once been President Obama's White House counsel. And the charges were supposed to happen before Election Day. So the story behind these charges is complicated. But just give us, like, the really simple version of it.
BERMAN: Sure. You know, we were investigating Greg Craig, as you mentioned, a prominent Democrat, former counsel to President Obama. And we get a call. My deputy gets a call from main Justice saying we want you to indict Craig before the mid-term elections. The person said that, you know, the office had just prosecuted two prominent allies of the president - Chris Collins, who's a Republican representative from upstate New York, and Michael Cohen, the president's lawyer and fixer. And it's time for us to, quote, "even things out" by indicting a Democrat prior to the midterm elections.
And so it was extremely troubling. And, you know, we ignored it. We investigated fully. The charges against Greg Craig were, you know, really weak, and an indictment was not appropriate. And so I declined to prosecute. And what did main Justice do at that point? They transferred the case to another district that did prosecute Greg Craig. And what happened is he went to trial, and in less than five hours, the jury acquitted Greg Craig. It was a case that should never have been brought.
GROSS: So the person from the Justice Department who gave the order to file criminal charges before Election Day was Edward O'Callaghan. And he denies that. He said that. But if he did, why - I mean, maybe I'm asking the obvious here - but why was that request so out of bounds?
BERMAN: Well, it was out of bounds because we're not supposed to base criminal prosecutorial decisions on whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat. And you're not supposed to weigh one against the other. You're not supposed to say, well, we've brought cases against, you know, two allies of the president, and we have to even things out. Our cases should be balanced and unbiased, without any political interference. And if there was a case to be brought against Greg Craig, the Southern District doesn't pull its punches. We would have brought the case. But there was no case to be brought. It was inappropriate. And I think the outcome with the acquittal of Greg Craig demonstrates that our judgment was correct.
GROSS: Another demand that you thought was outrageous from the Justice Department was that you bring charges against John Kerry, who was secretary of state during the Obama administration and negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, the deal that Trump pulled out of. This was the deal that would stop Iran from going any further in its nuclear program. Trump hated that deal pulled out of it after he became president. So you were expected to charge John Kerry with violating the Logan Act. So can you explain the Logan Act and how you were asked to use the Logan Act against John Kerry?
BERMAN: So what happened with John Kerry is that President Trump attacks John Kerry in two tweets, saying that he engaged in possible illegal communications with Iranian officials regarding the Iran nuclear deal. The very next day, Trump's Justice Department refers to the Southern District of New York the John Kerry criminal case.
And as you noted, the statute was the Logan Act. The Logan Act was enacted in 1799 and prohibits private parties from negotiating with foreign officials, except that in the 220-year history of the Logan Act, there had never been a criminal conviction. The statute had never been successfully prosecuted. And we looked into the conduct of John Kerry, and he was entirely innocent. But the Justice Department still pushed and pushed and pushed us. And when I declined, Bill Barr did not take no for an answer. He transferred the case to another district. And thankfully, that district didn't indict either.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Geoffrey Berman, who was the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York during two and a half years of the Trump administration. His new memoir is called "Holding The Line." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Geoffrey Berman, who served as U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York leading the Southern District for two and a half years during the Trump administration. In his new memoir, he writes that Trump's Justice Department kept demanding that Berman use his office to aid the administration politically. His new book is called "Holding The Line."
Let's talk about the Michael Cohen case. You were investigating whether hush money was paid through Michael Cohen to porn star Stormy McDaniels (ph) and centerfold Karen McDougal before the 2016 election. And if Trump had funneled money to Michael Cohen as hush money and Michael Cohen put that money into the campaign, this could have been campaign contributions from Cohen to the Trump campaign and would have been illegal campaign contributions. In the investigation charging statement, President Trump was referred to as Individual 1. You had recused yourself from supervising this investigation into Michael Cohen because you had volunteered as a lawyer for the Trump campaign. It would have been perceived as a conflict of interest. But you were involved in preventing the Justice Department from interfering in the case. So how did you personally respond when the Southern District was told, remove references to Individual 1?
BERMAN: Well, I wasn't involved in the case at that point in time. I became - I was read into the issues with the Cohen case and the campaign finance violations investigation when Bill Barr took office and tried to shut the whole thing down. And that was such an important issue that I was read into the case. And I was called personally about it. One of the first things that Bill Barr wanted to do was to put a U.S. attorney from another office, an outsider, in charge of our campaign finance violation investigation. And that was totally unacceptable, totally unprecedented. But it's someone who he trusted, Barr trusted, and he wanted to keep control of where the investigation was going. And so I pushed back on that. I said - you know, I told Barr's deputy that that's not going to happen and that the other U.S. attorney is not stepping foot in our office.
GROSS: The Southern District was told to stop all investigative work on the campaign finance allegation. And Bill Barr wanted to wait until the Office of Legal Counsel determined whether there was a legal case for the charges to which Cohen had pleaded guilty and until Barr himself had determined there was sufficient federal interest in pursuing charges against others in this case. So how did that tie your hands? I mean, you weren't allowed to do anything until these determinations were made.
BERMAN: For two months, the team that was investigating the campaign finance violations was not allowed by Bill Barr to look at a single document in their possession until Barr resolved these issues to his satisfaction. And it was so troubling to the office, to the Southern District of New York, that that's when I was read into the case because our team was sitting there unable to do anything, to pursue any of the investigation that they wanted to do. And it was, you know, really interfering with the integrity and independence of our office.
And so I was ready to unrecuse myself from the Michael Cohen - the post-Cohen investigation on campaign finance, and direct the team, in opposition to Barr's order, to go ahead with the investigation. And fortunately, Audrey Strauss, who, at that point, was my deputy, had convinced Barr to allow us to proceed with the investigation. And we did. But it was at that instance that I had first retained private lawyers because had I told the team to go forward with the investigation, I knew that I would be fired at that point, and I needed to be able to challenge that firing in court.
And so that's the first time I had private lawyers draft briefs to support the position that neither the attorney general nor the president could fire me because I was court-appointed. And I didn't need those papers at that time because Audrey was able to open up the investigation and allow it to be pursued to conclusion. But I told my lawyers, you - you know, don't throw out those drafts. With this attorney general, I'm sure I'm going to need it again. And indeed, I did.
GROSS: When I read in your book that Attorney General Bill Barr intervened to temporarily stop and slow down the investigation, I thought of Mar-a-Lago and the top-secret documents there and the judge who ruled there needed to be a special master to go over the documents before the Justice Department could investigate those documents. Were you reminded of that, too?
BERMAN: I certainly was. And look. The revelation that has come from the Department of Justice on the Mar-a-Lago case, that they are criminally investigating Donald Trump and those around Donald Trump not only for the mishandling of classified documents, but for obstruction of a subpoena that required the production of those documents, I mean, that's a very serious case that needs to proceed. The investigation needs to proceed. And you can see the urgency in Merrick Garland's filings, both in the district court and the appellate court. We've got to move on this investigation. And if that were in the Southern District of New York, we would treat it at the highest priority and would get our attention and we'd be moving fast on it. So I understand where the Justice Department is coming from on that, and I think they're justified.
GROSS: So to get back to the Michael Cohen case, just remind us what the outcome was.
BERMAN: Well, in the Michael Cohen case, he pled guilty, and he was sentenced. And the investigation into the campaign finance violations was allowed to occur. And it reached a conclusion, and no one was charged.
GROSS: In your book, you write, no one from the Southern District with knowledge of these matters - meaning all the matters in your book - has been interviewed or written about them. This is the first firsthand account of what occurred in the Southern District during the 2 1/2 years that you were its leader. Michael Cohen says that you had an obligation to speak out sooner when Barr was pressuring you on Cohen's case. And he calls your actions or your inaction unethical and quite possibly illegal. So do you think he has a case there? He says that for years, Trump and Barr and the Southern District brought fabricated charges against him for the benefit of then President Trump. And he says his allegations are validated by your book.
BERMAN: Well, you know, Michael Cohen pled guilty to charges of campaign finance violation and other financial crimes - tax and bank fraud crimes. No one twisted his arm to plead guilty to those things. So I don't think he has a case with respect to his criticism. And I think it's important for people to understand that present and former Department of Justice officials and employees are restricted in what they can say publicly about cases, investigations and discussions among Department of Justice employees. They are prohibited from saying those things.
And, you know, I've always abided by the rules and regulations of the Department of Justice, as has every assistant United States attorney in the Southern District of New York. And we were prohibited from talking about any of these things as they were going on. But we were able to maintain the independence and integrity of the Southern District of New York, despite all these attempts at interference by Barr and others. And so when I was fired, I went to the ethics officer of the Southern District of New York, and they confirmed that I'd be able to talk about those things. And then I notified the committee that I was restricted in my testimony to the last two days in office and my conversations with Barr. And they understood. And they agreed to those parameters. And that's what I testified to.
But nevertheless, I did testify that there would - that if Barr was successful in putting an outsider in charge of the Southern District of New York who he trusted, it would have disrupted and delayed our important, politically sensitive investigations. So I made it very clear what Barr was trying to do to the entire nation.
GROSS: At what point did it become ethically OK to reveal what happened?
BERMAN: After my congressional testimony, it was unsatisfying because they asked about the various points of interference, and I was prohibited from talking about it. So I went back to the ethics officer at the Southern District, and I said, what is the proper process to stay within the laws and regulations of the Department of Justice? Can I publicly disclose what actually happened between main Justice and the Southern District of New York? And he said, yeah, there is a process. It's called the pre-publication review process, where if you write an article or a book, it has to be submitted in advance to the Department of Justice. They will vet it, and if they clear it, it can be published. And that's the process I pursued.
GROSS: Well, it's time for another break. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Geoffrey Berman, who served as the U.S. attorney at the Southern District of New York for 2 1/2 years during the Trump administration. His new book is "Holding The Line: Inside The Nation's Preeminent U.S. Attorney's Office And Its Battle With The Trump Justice Department." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "RON CARTER")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Geoffrey Berman, who served as U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York leading the Southern District for two and a half years during the Trump administration. In his new memoir, he writes that Trump's Justice Department kept demanding that Berman use his office to aid the administration politically. His new book is called "Holding The Line." The book led Senator Dick Durbin, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to open an investigation last week into Berman's allegations that the Justice Department pressured the Southern District to create positive outcomes for the Trump administration.
So there's only a certain number of cases that we can cover in this interview. There are more cases in your book. At what point did the Justice Department, Bill Barr specifically, start talking about how it's time for you to go?
BERMAN: Well, that was June 19, 2020. He called me to a meeting at his suite at The Pierre Hotel in New York. And as soon as the meeting began, he told me that he wanted to make a change in the Southern District. He wanted me to resign and take another position at Main Justice, and he wanted to put in another U.S. attorney, Jay Clayton.
GROSS: Was Jay Clayton considered a Trump ally?
BERMAN: Well, Jay Clayton was currently the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. But the important thing - and I knew what Barr's agenda was. It wasn't to have someone nominated and confirmed by the Senate that - remember, this is five months before the election. Barr's agenda was to get somebody in immediately as acting U.S. attorney, pending whatever nomination was going to happen - but to get someone in immediately in the Southern District, someone from the outside, someone who he trusted, which would disrupt and delay the investigations we were pursuing, which included, as we mentioned, the Steve Bannon We Build The Wall investigation as well as the Ukraine investigation that we were pursuing out of the indictments of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.
GROSS: So what did Barr specifically ask? And how did you decline?
BERMAN: Barr asked me to take the position of chief of the Civil Division at Main Justice. And I declined. I said, I'm not interested in that position, and I'm never going to leave the people of the Southern District of New York. I love the job, and it's important for me to stay there to pursue the investigations that we were pursuing. And Barr didn't take that as an answer. He first said, well, if I take the position as chief of the Civil Division, when I leave the Department of Justice, it will be good experience that'll allow me to build a book of business at whatever law firm I go to. And I said, you know, still not interested. And then, you know, he brought out the hammer. And he said, well, if I don't resign and take another job, I'm going to be fired, and that's not going to be good for my resume. So he was...
GROSS: Your reaction was what?
BERMAN: It was just a complete bullying tactic, and it didn't affect me in the least. I thought it was a gross attempt for him to try and bully a resolution of this. But it didn't have the effect he desired. I stood firm and told him that I wasn't leaving. And then, he offered another position to me, the chairmanship of the SEC, which I also declined because I knew what he was planning because he had done it before in the District of Columbia. A few months earlier, the U.S. attorney from the District of Columbia resigned her position and took a job at Treasury. And she was replaced not with her deputy, but with someone from the outside, a close ally of Barr. And there proceeded to be filings in the Flynn and Manafort cases. It was like there was a hostile takeover of the District of Columbia by Main Justice, and I wasn't going to permit that to happen in the Southern District of New York.
GROSS: But as it turns out, you didn't have a choice 'cause you were basically fired. Part 1 was that Barr issued a press release. Tell us what was in the press release.
BERMAN: Barr issues a press release that Friday night, June 19th, saying that I was stepping down from the position of U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. And he knew very well that I wasn't stepping down, that I had rejected all his efforts to get me to - yeah, to step down and I wasn't doing it. And that - and then, his plan was laid out in that press release. I was stepping down, and there was going to be an outsider of the Southern District of New York who Barr trusted, an outsider who would come in as acting United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, bypassing the normal procedure of my deputy taking over as acting United States attorney - Audrey Strauss, who was a person of unparalleled integrity.
GROSS: So what was your reaction to this press release saying that you were resigning when you had told Barr that you were not going to resign? How did you think through what your strategy would be?
BERMAN: My strategy at that point was determining that Barr's plan had to be stopped, that I was not going to allow an outsider to come into the Southern District of New York and take over the investigations and cases. And so I responded very noisily to the press release by Attorney General Barr, and I issued my own press release to the country saying exactly what Barr was trying to do and exactly how he was crossing the line. And I said he lied. The chief law enforcement officer of the country lied when he said I was stepping down. I said, I have no intention of stepping down, and I'm going to ensure that the cases of the United - of the Southern District of New York proceed without interference and delay. I used the language of the obstruction of justice statute, and that was designed to pressure Barr to back off.
Once I issued that press release, I knew I was going to get fired. But my goal was to get Audrey Strauss as acting United States attorney. And that's exactly what happened.
GROSS: So how were you fired?
BERMAN: The next day, I received a letter from Bill Barr saying that I was fired by the president and instead of the outsider coming in to take over as acting U.S. attorney, that Audrey Strauss would come in pursuant to normal procedure and take over as acting U.S. attorney. And once I saw that, that Audrey was going to take over, then I knew I didn't have to fight it anymore. Because if it was going to be the outsider coming in, I had my papers ready, as I mentioned earlier, papers that were written several months ago that would take the position that because I was court-appointed, I couldn't be fired by the attorney general or the president. But I didn't have to file those papers because I was confident that the cases of the Southern District of New York would proceed appropriately and with integrity and independence.
GROSS: Did the Justice Department try to intervene in any way or interfere in any way with cases that the Southern District was investigating while your deputy was the acting attorney general?
BERMAN: Once I was fired, you know, your contact with the office ceases. And it's a door that closes. And I'm not privy to anything that happened after my firing.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Geoffrey Berman, who served as the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, leading the southern district for 2 1/2 years during the Trump administration. His new memoir is called "Holding The Line." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET'S "STAY THE NIGHT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Geoffrey Berman, who served as U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, leading the southern district for 2 1/2 years during the Trump administration. In his new memoir, he writes that Trump's Justice Department kept demanding that Berman use his office to aid the administration politically. His memoir is called "Holding The Line."
Did you ever try to say to Attorney General Bill Barr that he was being unethical in what he was asking you to do?
BERMAN: Yeah. There was an incident. And Barr didn't appreciate this very much. But we had great conflict over how to approach Halkbank. Halkbank is a Turkish-owned bank. And it had been involved, allegedly, in violating the Iran sanctions. And we brought a case against one of its officers, who was convicted. And we wanted to bring a case against the bank itself. And Barr was impeding that effort. And there was one meeting in particular where Barr was pushing for us to enter into secret non-prosecution agreements with officers of the bank and officers of the Turkish government. And these are agreements that he said, well, we wouldn't really need to tell the court that they exist. And I said, actually, that would be a fraud on the court. And I said it to the room full of people. And I don't think that Barr appreciated it very much. And those secret non-prosecution agreements, to my knowledge, were never entered into.
GROSS: And those agreements would have said what?
BERMAN: They would have said - you know, they would have been very similar to the secret non-prosecution agreement that the Southern District of Florida under Alex Acosta entered in with Jeffrey Epstein. It would have said that you're not going to be prosecuted in this district once you sign this document.
GROSS: So you can give us information, but we're never going to prosecute you for it.
BERMAN: That's correct.
GROSS: Now, Trump had interests in Turkey. He was close or, you know, reasonably close with the president of Turkey, Erdogan. And he also had Trump Towers in - was it in Istanbul?
GROSS: So do you think that that figured into the Justice Department's desire to get this non-prosecution agreement?
BERMAN: You know, I don't know the specifics. I do know that Trump was reported to be friends and close to Erdogan. And if the prosecution of Halkbank displeased the president, then it displeased Bill Barr. That's just how it worked. He did the president's bidding.
GROSS: But then, after Turkey sent troops across the border into Syria, that made Trump look bad because Trump had just pulled U.S. troops out of Syria. So what changed at that point after Trump and Erdogan had a falling out?
BERMAN: Right. There was a falling out apparently and reportedly between Trump and Erdogan. And at that point, we were given the green light to indict Halkbank. And we did it within 24 hours.
GROSS: Have you thought a lot about what Trump may be guilty of and may be charged with in the future?
BERMAN: Well, you know, I'm aware, as everyone is, of, you know, several investigations that are pending now with respect to the president. I have no firsthand knowledge of any one of those investigations. And when I was the United States attorney, it always frustrated me when people from the outside would venture comments and opinions about, you know, the cases that we were handling when they didn't know the facts or they had only a small sliver of the facts. And so I'm not going to speculate on that here.
GROSS: You know, reading your book, I just kept thinking about how justice in America or any country depends on people of integrity in positions of power, judges, prosecutors, the Justice Department. So I'm sure that's something you've thought about a lot. Would you like to reflect on that?
BERMAN: Sure. I think you're absolutely right. And what strikes me when I - in writing the book and looking back over my experiences is just how vulnerable our justice system is, how it does depend on people of integrity. If you have a president that's intent on using the Department of Justice like his own law firm to target political enemies and to help political friends, and you have people at the highest levels of the Department of Justice who are going to do the president's bidding and undermine the rule of law and the credibility and the independence - and undermine the independence of the Department of Justice, then it's a very dangerous situation.
GROSS: Do you think there's any such thing as an impartial judge or justice or Justice Department anymore because things have become so politicized and so many people in those categories are political appointees?
BERMAN: You know, my job was non-political. And my problems with the Trump administration and with the Department of Justice under Bill Barr is non-political. It's about undermining the rule of law and the very fabric of our society. And in order to live in a democracy, we need faith and confidence in our key institutions. And that is what has been eroded. And that really, we need leaders who will uphold the rule of law and re-establish faith and confidence in our institutions. And I hope that will happen.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Geoffrey Berman, who served as the U.S. attorney at the Southern District of New York for 2 1/2 years during the Trump administration. His new memoir is called "Holding The Line." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "SMALL PLANET")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jeffrey Berman. In his new memoir, "Holding The Line," he writes about his 2 1/2 years during the Trump administration, serving as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and how the Justice Department pressured him to use his office to help Trump allies and punish Trump enemies.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, you supported Donald Trump. And what did you see him - in him then? I mean, you donated legal services to the campaign. What were you expecting his presidency would be like?
BERMAN: Well, Donald Trump was a Democrat turned Republican. And I thought he was going to be transactional. I thought he would be able to reach across the aisle and make deals on a deal-by-deal basis with the Democrats. And I was completely wrong, and I acknowledge that in the book.
GROSS: Did his legal record trouble you? He had a record of being sued and of suing. He had a record of not paying debts that he owed. He had no experience governing. Some of the people who surrounded himself with were extremists, including Steve Bannon. Did any of that trouble you?
BERMAN: Well, like many who stayed in their jobs despite misgivings, I decided to take the appointment. And I tried to keep my job because I thought it was best for the Southern District of New York and the country. The Southern District...
GROSS: I'm talking about during the campaign.
BERMAN: Well, they were troubling, but I thought that ultimately, he was going to be transactional, that he could actually reach across the aisle - because that really wasn't happening - and get some work done. And I wasn't the only one who felt that way.
GROSS: So one other thing I want to ask you about, did it trouble you when Trump got his supporters chanting, lock her up - about Hillary Clinton? I mean, as a prosecutor, how did you feel about that?
BERMAN: Well, I thought it was part of the, you know, campaign. I wasn't happy about it. But I nevertheless thought he would be an effective president, and I was completely wrong about that.
GROSS: You tell a story about Rudy Giuliani that is both disturbing and funny at the same time. You were a lawyer in private practice. And the practice of this law firm was that when you got a new partner in the law firm, that the partner was introduced to important clients. And so Rudy Giuliani had joined the law firm. And you basically hosted a dinner in which he was being introduced to important clients. And things went really wrong when the subject of Muslims came up. Tell us the story.
BERMAN: This was a train wreck of train wrecks. I invited a client to a dinner with Rudy Giuliani, and things started off OK. You know, he was having a couple of drinks during the cocktail hour and regaling people with stories of his time as mayor. And then dinner started. And he had a few more drinks. You know, everything was going OK. And then he started talking about his potential role in a Trump administration with respect to immigration and the Muslims immigrating to the country. And he started on a rant, an alt-right rant about the violence of Islam.
And he was unhinged. It was extremely uncomfortable for everyone in the room. And at one point, there was an officer of the company who was Jewish but whose family was from Egypt. And he challenged Giuliani. And he said, well, I'm quite familiar with the Muslim people and Islam, and I can tell you, Mr. Giuliani, that it is not a violent religion. And Rudy shot back, I hate to tell you this, but the founder of your religion is a murderer. And by the way, this was a person who was wearing a yarmulke and had a kosher meal. You would think that, you know, Giuliani would have recognized that, but he assumed the person was a Muslim. And a pall fell over the room. There was just silence.
And ultimately, I broke the silence at an attempt to humor. You know, I just said, well, that's eight years of client development down the drain. But it was a complete disaster. And I thought it ended there. I - you know, I didn't think anyone really heard about this story until I went to a reunion of former AUSAs. And someone came up to me, and he said, oh, I heard you had a really interesting dinner with Rudy a couple weeks ago. I said, you heard about that? And he said, Geoff (ph), there's not a person in this room who hasn't heard about that dinner.
GROSS: So this was before you were appointed U.S. attorney. Was it before the campaign?
BERMAN: This was in May of 2016.
GROSS: So it was during the campaign.
GROSS: And were you sorry at that point that Giuliani had become a part of the law firm?
BERMAN: It was deeply disturbing to see him unhinged like that. And so, yeah, I was disturbed that he was now my partner.
GROSS: And also, he was very closely allied with Donald Trump at that point. And, again, that didn't give you pause about supporting Trump.
BERMAN: Well, I - you know, I had concerns about Trump and some of his positions. But as I said, I nevertheless thought he could be an effective president.
GROSS: What was it like to try to do your job knowing that you could be fired at any moment?
BERMAN: It was like walking a tightrope. And I had to walk, and I had to move the cases forward. I was lucky to be working with the best attorneys in the country in the Southern District of New York and using their intelligence and gifts to bring all the great cases that we brought. So it was extremely rewarding on one side. But on the other side, dealing with the kind of unrelenting attempts to intervene in our cases, it was very tough. So it was a tightrope that I walked.
GROSS: How much were you able to talk about your concerns with prosecutors at the Southern District? And how much did you just have to keep to yourself?
BERMAN: Well, that's a very interesting question. You know, clearly, my top staff advisers knew about all of these, you know, incredibly inappropriate interferences. But I tried to keep it away from the line prosecutors. They had jobs to do. I needed to keep them focused. So I viewed it as my job to run interference with Main Justice and let them do their work.
GROSS: It must be strange for you to be doing all this press now after having, you know, scrupulously avoided the press.
BERMAN: Terry, I didn't do a single interview...
GROSS: We searched.
BERMAN: ...When I...
GROSS: I want to tell you, we usually try to hear how our guests speak before we book them. We couldn't find hardly anything with you in it.
BERMAN: There's nothing with me in it because I didn't do any interviews because I kept my head down. I did the job, and I didn't want to run afoul of the rules and regulations of the Department of Justice by disclosing something accidentally in an interview that might be inappropriate. So I just didn't do them.
GROSS: You worked under two attorney generals and one acting attorney general. So it was Jeff Sessions, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and then Attorney General Bill Barr. Having had all those experiences, what's your assessment so far of Merrick Garland?
BERMAN: Well, he's said and done everything the way it's supposed to be done. He's maintained, as far as anyone can see, the integrity and independence of the Department of Justice. And I fully expect him to proceed that way and continue.
GROSS: Geoffrey Berman, thank you so much for talking with us.
BERMAN: Thank you for inviting me.
GROSS: Geoffrey Berman served for two and a half years during the Trump administration as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. His new memoir is called "Holding The Line."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about bringing diversity into the fashion industry with Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue. He's the first Black person to hold that position. He'd been told Black women don't sell magazines. He proved that was false. Enninful learned what it's like to feel marginalized when he was growing up in England after emigrating with his family from Ghana. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I am Terry Gross.
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