• Top Southern District of New York prosecutor Geoffrey Berman, who was probing Trump's allies, fired by William Barr
  • Attorney General Barr says Trump agreed to fire the official
  • Public firestorm averted as Berman agrees to step down without a fight

America's top law enforcement official told one of the country's most powerful prosecutors, known for investigating allies of President Donald Trump, that he was fired Saturday -- sparking uproar and prompting calls by Democrats for an independent inquiry.

Geoffrey Berman, head of the Southern District of New York attorney's office since 2018, discovered his job was in jeopardy via a press release late Friday from Attorney General Bill Barr saying the prosecutor was stepping down.

Berman responded that he had "no intention" of quitting, and that his office's "investigations will move forward without interruption."

But Barr sent him a letter Saturday saying Trump had agreed to fire the official "as of today."

The fast-intensifying crisis has pitted the government against much of Washington's legal community -- and has apparently set Barr against Trump, who later denied any involvement in the case.

In his letter, circulated widely by US media, Barr accused Berman of having "chosen public spectacle over public service" through his defiance.

His ouster is the latest controversy in what Democrats have characterized as the politicization of the Justice Department under Barr.

Berman had overseen the prosecution of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and probed advisor Rudy Giuliani's efforts to discredit the president's political opponents.

But Trump, speaking to reporters ahead of a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, denied sacking Berman -- further adding to the confused messaging coming from the administration.

"That's all up to the attorney general... He's working on that, that's his department, not my department," Trump said. "I'm not involved."

Federal prosecutors under Berman's charge in New York have pursued cases against tycoon sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who was found dead in his Manhattan jail cell last year.

Berman also investigated two associates of Giuliani accused of campaign finance violations and helping dig up dirt on Trump's election challenger Joe Biden as part of the Ukraine scandal over which Trump was impeached.

Powerful New York Southern District attorney Geoffrey Berman, who prosecuted Trump's former lawyer, has been sacked
Powerful New York Southern District attorney Geoffrey Berman, who prosecuted Trump's former lawyer, has been sacked AFP / Johannes EISELE

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer urged the Justice Department's inspector general to launch an investigation into "blatantly corrupt DOJ interference."

Meanwhile Jerry Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, accused Barr of repeatedly interfering in "criminal investigations on Trump's behalf."

"We have a hearing on this topic on Wednesday," Nadler tweeted. "We welcome Mr Berman's testimony and will invite him to testify."

The Trump administration has in recent months fired or demoted inspectors general for the Pentagon, the intelligence community and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as a senior health official who questioned Trump's promotion of unproven drug therapies for COVID-19.

State Department inspector general Steve Linick was removed last month after running a misconduct probe into Washington's top diplomat and steadfast Trump ally Mike Pompeo.

Meanwhile Barr has been accused of repeatedly acting as Trump's personal lawyer instead of in the interests of the American people following the Justice Department's intervention in several cases involving Trump allies.

More than 1,000 former department officials signed a statement calling for Barr's resignation over his interference to get a lighter sentence for longtime Trump friend Roger Stone.

Since then Barr has been berated for his department's decision to drop the case against Trump's first national security advisor Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying about his Russia contacts to the FBI.

Democratic congressman Ted Lieu, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, evoked a "strong pattern of corruption" among Trump and his allies, and said his committee was looking at options to hold them accountable.

Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University, argued however that Barr's move may have had nothing to do with investigations of Trump allies.

"Barr needs to be clear as to why he wanted to remove Berman and, most importantly, to guarantee that the underlying investigations will not be impacted by this change in leadership," Turley told AFP.