When former U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman wrote a tell-all book last year about the drama inside the powerful Manhattan federal prosecutor’s office, many people were irked that he waited two years to reveal how the Trump administration secretly pressured him to protect the president from criminal investigations.
But Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s consigliere-turned-fall guy, had more reason than anyone to be pissed off.
Cohen was the only person targeted by that office who served jail time for his role in the scheme to pay porn star Stormy Daniels hush money to keep her quiet about her affair with Trump—thus sparing his 2016 presidential campaign the scandal.
According to Berman’s book, Justice Department top brass tried to shield Trump, demanding that Berman’s team of prosecutors scrub any reference to him in public law enforcement documents. And the attorney general at the time, Bill Barr, even tried to unravel Cohen’s prosecution by shopping around an alternative legal “theory” that, in fact, Trump’s right-hand man hadn’t broken campaign finance laws.
But all the details remained secret until Berman landed a book deal with Penguin Press and published Holding the Line in September.
So on Dec. 7, Cohen filed an official bar complaint in New York against Berman, pointing to the bombshell allegations in the book.
“Mr. Berman, despite his self-aggrandizing refusal to capitulate to the pressure campaign, failed and failed miserably to uphold his ethical and legal obligation to report the occurrences. By failing to do so, Mr. Berman deprived me of valuable information that could have been used in my defense,” Cohen wrote.
When The Daily Beast first notified Berman about the complaint on Thursday at noon, the New York lawyer declined to comment.
But just 45 minutes later, the legal professional board issued an official determination that it would no longer pursue an investigation—merely citing Berman’s claim in the book that he did nothing wrong.
“Mr. Berman wrote that he took no inappropriate action at the behest of the Department of Justice under former President Trump,” wrote Jorge Dopico, chief attorney of the judicial region’s attorney grievance committee. “We have concluded that no further investigation or action is warranted.”
And now Cohen is even more infuriated.
“He says nothing about the communications until he’s out of office, in private practice, and decides to write about it in a for-profit book. How is this not unethical?” Cohen asked The Daily Beast on Thursday afternoon.
Unlike some states where the legal profession is regulated by an independent bar association, New York state courts set the rules of conduct. Cohen filed his complaint against Berman, who works at the Manhattan firm of Fried Frank, with the attorney grievance committee at the regional appellate court, the First Judicial Department.
Legitimate bar complaints are rare against anyone with Berman’s credentials. As the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York, for two years he oversaw complex investigations spanning the globe—everything ranging from illegal gold trading and spycraft to terrorism and bank fraud. His predecessors include James Comey and Mary Jo White, who went on to lead the FBI and SEC respectively.
Then again, the list also includes Rudy Giuliani, who was stripped of his law license in New York and might also be disbarred in Washington, D.C.
But when bar complaints are registered, they stay under wraps. That’s because, according to court rules, “all disciplinary investigations and proceedings shall be kept confidential” by court staff.
Still, The Daily Beast exclusively obtained a copy of the complaint, emails, and the conclusion letter marked “personal and confidential” dropping the case.
“Specifically, there is an insufficient basis for the committee to make a finding that Mr. Berman violated the New York Rules of Professional conduct as you allege,” the committee wrote to Cohen on Thursday.
It was unclear if the committee actually read the book, which details how Berman received a ton of pressure from AG Barr, Trump’s bulldog at the Justice Department—and how the office at times gave him some of what he wanted to keep him at bay.
Berman, who served on Trump’s transition team and was later appointed by him as Manhattan’s U.S. Attorney, chose to recuse himself from the Cohen case—knowing full well where it could lead.
But the book shows that he remained apprised of the situation, as well as the relentless and unethical campaign by DOJ officials beholden to the Trump administration trying to meddle in the case. The Trumpy DOJ then screwed up his ouster in 2020 when Barr claimed Berman resigned, only to have Berman publicly reveal that was a lie, leading Barr to promptly fire him in a nasty letter.
In his memoir, Berman made some shocking accusations. He claimed that his team of federal prosecutors working on Cohen’s case initially drafted a damning court document detailing his crimes that ran “about forty pages long.” And the document made numerous references to Trump, a central figure to the criminal scheme, as “Individual-1.”
However, a top DOJ official at the time, Edward C. O’Callaghan, was bothered by all the incriminating details implicating the president and asked them to cut it down. The “information,” as the official document is called, was whittled down to 21 pages. The law firm where O’Callaghan is now has denied that description of the events.
In his book, Berman also explains how AG Barr later weaponized an administrative corner of the Justice Department—the Office of Legal Counsel—to throw a wrench into the Cohen prosecution. He wrote that OLC head Steven A. Engel had his office draft a 15-page memo to the New York team questioning whether it might even be illegal to charge Cohen for making hush money payments, a legal theory that could have cut off any ability for the investigation to lead to the big boss: Trump himself.
“We submitted numerous memoranda to Main Justice, supporting the legal basis of the campaign finance charges against Cohen,” Berman wrote in his book.
Berman credits a senior counsel in the Manhattan prosecutor’s office, Audrey Strauss, who has since joined him at the Fried Frank firm, for getting the nation’s partisan AG to back off and not kill the Cohen case.
But it’s that secret back-and-forth that Cohen wanted examined by the profession’s ethicists. The commission’s decision left him despondent.
“It continues to validate the fact that those who hold power or have held power are treated differently than those who don’t,” he said.