President Trump’s nominee to take over the Manhattan federal prosecutors office after the abrupt dismissal of U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman refused on Thursday to say whether he would recuse himself from pending investigations involving Trump’s interests and associates if confirmed for the post.
Appearing before a House Financial Services subcommittee, Securities and Exchange Committee Chairman Jay Clayton sought to deflect Democrats’ questions about his selection for the job and the circumstances under which Berman was removed over the weekend, characterizing the Senate confirmation process as “way down the road.” But when pressed by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) to “commit, right here, to recusing yourself” from matters in which the president has a personal stake, Clayton demurred.
“What I will commit to do, which is what I commit to in my current job, is to approach the job with independence and to follow all ethical rules,” he responded.
Attorney General William P. Barr announced Clayton’s nomination in a news release issued late Friday night. Barr indicated at the time that Berman intended to step down early next month and that the U.S. attorney in neighboring New Jersey would run the Manhattan office on an interim basis. In a remarkable statement of his own issued hours later, Berman said he had no intention of resigning — and that he was determined to ensure “important cases continue unimpeded.”
The highly unusual standoff ended late Saturday, after Barr informed Berman that Trump had decided to fire him. The attorney general then named Berman’s deputy, Audrey Strauss, as the office’s acting head.
The New York U.S. Attorney’s Office has pursued a number of investigations that have struck close to Trump’s inner circle, including his former and current personal attorneys, as well as his political campaign.
An ongoing probe into Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s current lawyer, has been particularly aggravating to the president.
Earlier in Thursday’s hearing, which was supposed to focus on the state of the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, Clayton sought to assure lawmakers that he remains devoted to his present job at the SEC, which he has held since 2017.
“I recognize the nomination process is multifaceted and uncertain, and it is clear the process does not require my current attention,” he said in prepared remarks. “In short, I am fully committed to and focused on my role at the SEC.”
Clayton’s nomination to take over the job may already be in trouble. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, signaled he would honor the so-called “blue slip” veto system granting home-state senators a say in whose nomination proceeds. Several Democrats, including those the Democratic senators from New York, have called on Clayton to withdraw his nomination.