Prior to being alerted via press release that he was being replaced, Geoffrey Berman, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, refused to sign a letter criticizing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for enforcing social distancing measures blocking religious gatherings, people familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal on Monday.
Berman was asked to sign the letter on Thursday by supervisors in the Justice Department, but objected to the idea that de Blasio was imposing a double standard, since he had not been trying to shut down anti-racism and police brutality protests, the Journal reports. Berman also believed the letter was nothing more than a political stunt and worried it would cause tension between the city and his office, two people told the Journal.
In April, as the number of infections and hospitalizations spiked in New York, de Blasio criticized ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn after they held a large funeral for a prominent rabbi, in violation of social distancing measures enacted by the city. The letter, sent to de Blasio on Friday by Eric Drieband, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, stated that "compliance with the First Amendment is not optional, and that Amendment protects both free exercise of religion and assembly rights."
Late Friday, Attorney General William Barr made the stunning announcement that Berman was stepping down. Berman quickly replied, saying that he had no plans to resign, and even showed up to work on Saturday. Berman only agreed to leave after receiving a letter from Barr on Saturday saying he had been fired by Trump; later, Trump told reporters he was "not involved."
Two people familiar with the matter said Barr always found Berman hard to work with, and his refusal to sign the letter irritated Barr. He had been looking for someone to replace Berman, the Journal reports, and moved quickly when he learned that Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton wanted the job; Clayton has never worked as a federal prosecutor. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department told the Journal Barr did not know Berman didn't sign the letter, and it had nothing to do with the decision to remove him.