Looking back at it from a distance of more than a decade, it’s clear that during the first decade of the 21st Century, the most profitable organized crime syndicates operated out of Wall Street. They built a pyramid of confidence games based on over-valued real estate, under-secured mortgages and disposable customers. In that context, Jay Clayton was a preeminent mob lawyer.
In the famous case called Abacus, in which a hedge fund genius named John Paulson put together an investment package of losers, financial garbage which Goldman Sachs sold as gold. When the package tanked, the SEC moved in, and convicted a salesman and left the mega-profiteers Paulson, and his good friend Goldman Sachs boss Lloyd Blankfein, untouched. Goldman Sachs’ lawyer was Jay Clayton.
Clayton also represented, over his last 10 years at the White Shoe Valhalla, the law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, eight of ten of the world’s biggest banks, including Deutsche Bank, the last bank on Earth lending millions of dollars to Donald Trump. Deutsche Bank is reported to be under investigation, among others, by the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. That’s the very office President Trump and his Attorney General William Barr tried to hand to the money mob’s mouthpiece, Jay Clayton.
Was this potential obstruction of justice, giving supervision of a Deutsche Bank investigation to their former defense attorney, what caused Geoffrey Berman to blow up Barr’s clumsy plan to announce Berman’s “resignation” first and then get it afterwards.
Or was it the idea of putting a guy with zero prosecutorial experience and a career of kashering the “pink slime” of the financial industry in charge of the case against Halkbank, a favorite of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, about to go on trial on charges of busting U.S. sanctions on Iran. John Bolton says Trump promised Erdogan he’d fix that case.
Or was Berman trying to defend his indictment of two businessmen accused of shady campaign contributions to Republican candidates and of helping Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer in his impeachable campaign to dig up dirt in Ukraine about Joe Biden?
In the end, Berman outlawyered Barr, threatening to make Trump fire him and forcing Barr to accept the consequence that would have come with the firing before submitting his resignation – he would not be replaced by a temp from New Jersey, nor by Clayton, but by his own hand-picked number two, who people in his office say, is even more invested in these investigations than Berman was.
Barr’s Berman blunders led Joan Walsh of The Nation to remark: it shows that “Trumpism is a degenerative disease.” Funny, but in Barr’s case, not true. He’s been a legal degenerate for decades. Go back to his work undermining the Iran-Contra prosecution of Lawrence Walsh, capped when – in his last weeks in office – President George H.W. Bush took the advice of his Attorney General William Barr and pardoned six of Walsh’s targets, one who had been convicted, three who had plead guilty and two who were awaiting trial.
One of them was Casper Weinberger who was going to have to testify about 1,700 pages of personal notes he had tried to hide from prosecutors. The notes not only showed that he had lied to Congress about the Iran-Contra connection that led the Reagan Administration to bust its own sanctions on Iran, but suggested that both Presidents Reagan and Bush the elder had also lied consistently to the American people. AG Barr had already tried to undermine the Weinberger prosecution, to, in the words of the conservative columnist William Safire, “cover up” for his boss. The pardons just completed the cover-up.
Old habits die hard.
Elie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent—covering the courts, the criminal justice system, and politics—and the force behind the magazine’s monthly column “Objection!” He is also an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. He can be followed @ElieNYC.