President Donald Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr first learned less than two weeks ago that their chosen pick as the next top prosecutor in Manhattan wanted the job, he told Congress on Thursday.
Jay Clayton — currently the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) — made the revelation in a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee, while fielding questions from Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).
Late in the evening on Friday, June 19, Barr announced that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, was stepping down, and that Trump would nominate Clayton to replace him. Berman, however, said he had no plans to step down, kicking off a dramatic intra-DOJ stand-off that ended Saturday afternoon.
“When did you first discuss the Southern District job with the president, or the Trump administration, and who did you discuss it with?” Maloney asked. “Attorney General Barr?”
“Look, I’m here as the chairman of the SEC to discuss the work of the SEC,” he replied. “What I can say is that, as I said in my opening statement, I need to go back to New York.”
“I was just asking for a timeline,” Maloney replied. “When did you discuss it? Just give me the approximate date, the timeline.”
“What I want to say is, this is something I’ve been talking about for a while, consulting with people as to whether this would make sense for me to continue in public service,” Clayton continued. “This was first raised to the president and the attorney general last weekend. It was something that I had wanted to do, and they first became aware of it last weekend.”
“Thank you, and did you know that Mr. Berman did not want to leave his job in the Southern District when you agreed to accept the nomination?” she asked. “In other words, did you know he was going to be fired to make room for you, instead, for the job?”
“I’m not going to get into that here,” he replied.
Clayton’s statement appeared to indicate that within hours of his expressing interest in the job, Barr moved to fire the person who held it at the time––a remarkably quick decision-making process. A spokesperson for the SEC did not immediately respond to a request for more clarification of Clayton’s statement. Later in the hearing, after Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA) asked him to clarify, he said he actually had “the initial conversation” with Barr and Trump over the weekend of June 12.
“This was entirely my idea,” he said. “This was something that I’d been thinking about for several months as a possible continuation of public service after my time at the SEC is done.”
Clayton golfed with Trump on Saturday, June 13, according to The New York Times, raising the question of whether he discussed the Southern District posting directly with the president on that occasion.
In his exchange with Maloney, Clayton also addressed a question about whether or not he would recuse himself from matters involving Trump and his allies.
“If you are eventually confirmed by the Senate for this job, would you commit to recusing yourself from all of that office’s current investigation into President Trump and his associates?” she asked.
“Here’s what I’m gonna say,” he replied. “That’s a process that’s way down the road. Whatever my current position or any position I take, I commit to doing it independently, without fear or favor, in the pursuit of justice.”
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I was asking,” Maloney shot back, going on to detail why she was pressing him on it.
“I’m asking you a very simple question,” she said. “Will you commit, right here, to recusing yourself from these investigations?”
“That position and that process is something that is separate and doesn’t need my attention. What I will commit to do, what I commit to do in my current job, is to approach the job with independence and to follow all ethical rules.”
Maloney said he still wasn’t answering the question, and said the American people need to know whether or not he will be independent.
“Understood, and I commit to independence,” he replied.
The circumstances of Berman’s ouster generated furor among congressional Democrats and critics of Trump’s DOJ. And it still isn’t clear why Barr fired him so quickly, as he could have stayed in the position until the Senate confirmed Clayton as his replacement.
Some even called for Barr’s impeachment in the wake of the move. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi batted down that talk in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday.
“At this point, let’s solve our problems by going to the polls and voting on election day,” she said.