Manhattan gains a US attorney with a reputation for independence

Audrey Strauss, the new US attorney for the Southern District of New York, has operated behind the scenes for much of her career, earning a reputation as an understated and ultra-prepared advocate for a corporate clientele.

Now she finds herself under a glaring spotlight after claiming one of the most powerful posts in US law enforcement in circumstances that have brought further attention to the legal travails of the Trump administration.

Ms Strauss slid into the job on Saturday, giving her command of several investigations circling Mr Trump and his associates. She was elevated after the clumsy ouster of her boss, Geoffrey Berman, at the hands of William Barr, the US attorney-general.

Mr Barr issued a press release late on Friday evening, saying Mr Berman was “stepping down” as the US attorney for the southern district — only for Mr Berman to fire back that he had no intention of doing so. After an extraordinary stand-off, Mr Berman relented on Saturday. But he did so after securing a key concession: that his deputy, Ms Strauss — and not one of Mr Barr’s allies — be allowed to succeed him on an acting basis.

The episode has prompted questions about whether the administration was trying to interfere with a prosecutors’ office known to be investigating the president’s family business, his lavish inauguration and the dealings of his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani — himself a former US attorney who pursued the mafia when he led the southern district in the mid-1980s. 

The southern district has already taken down a top Trump lieutenant. It secured a guilty plea two years ago from Mr Trump’s onetime fixer, Michael Cohen, for arranging payments to two women with whom the president had extramarital liaisons. It was a case in which Ms Strauss played a key role.

In October, the southern district charged Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas — two Trump donors and Giuliani associates — with making illegal campaign contributions. Both men have ties to Ukraine, and were embroiled in the scandal that led to the president’s impeachment.

The southern district is reportedly probing Deutsche Bank, a big lender to the president and his developer son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Meanwhile, it has also been investigating another bank with possible Trump links: Turkey’s Halkbank, for allegedly busting US sanctions on Iran. 

According to John Bolton, Mr Trump’s former national security adviser, the president at one point suggested to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that he could “take care” of the southern district’s probe of Halkbank. The White House has dismissed Mr Bolton as a liar.

Michael Bachner, a defence lawyer who has long known Ms Strauss, predicted that she would be a formidable leader of the southern district, even on a temporary basis.

“If the theory was to remove Berman and replace him with somebody more susceptible to Trump’s desires, he failed,” Mr Bachner said of the attorney-general. “Audrey Strauss is a woman of enormous integrity. She is also one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”

A graduate of Columbia law school, Ms Strauss joined the southern district’s criminal division in 1972, at a time when women were scarce in the department. She rose under the tutelage of Robert Fiske, the former US attorney. She went on to found the white-collar practice at New York law firm Fried Frank, and then served as chief counsel at Alcoa, the aluminium company.

Ms Strauss was persuaded to come out of retirement two years ago by Mr Berman — with whom she had worked on the 1980s Iran-Contra investigation — to add another seasoned hand as the southern district focused on Mr Trump. Her husband, John “Rusty” Wing is also a highly regarded New York defence lawyer, and was once mentioned in legal circles as a possible southern district leader.

“[She] adds instant credibility,” Mary Jo White, who overlapped with Ms Strauss as a young prosecutor before going on to lead the southern district, told the FT in 2018. “She’s not a table-thumper — she’s just one of the most extraordinary people and lawyers around.”

The southern district is renowned for its role in overseeing Wall Street — and for a fiercely independent streak that has led some to nickname it the “sovereign district”.

David Rybicki, a former lawyer in the Justice Department’s criminal division, doubted that Mr Berman’s removal would have any impact on Trump-related investigations.

“[Southern district] prosecutors have not balked at indicting individuals with connections to the Trump administration and will handle whatever ongoing matters they have now in the normal course, irrespective of who is US attorney or is appointed to that position,” said Mr Rybicki, now a partner at K & L Gates.

Given the southern district’s reputation for autonomy, he dismissed as “simply unrealistic” the notion that Mr Berman had been removed to head off an investigation that might damage the president politically. Other legal observers have suggested that, had Mr Barr wanted to disrupt an investigation, there were more subtle ways available to him.

But Mr Berman’s ouster has troubled others — not least because of its manner and timing. 

“Why lie to the public? Why say he stepped down when he didn’t?” asked Elie Honig, a former southern district prosecutor who is a partner at Lowenstein Sandler. 

Mr Honig also noted that the administration’s suggested replacement — Jay Clayton, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission — has no experience as a prosecutor, let alone a southern district pedigree. “He’s never tried a case,” Mr Honig said in disbelief.

Another former prosecutor wondered why Mr Trump did not leave Mr Berman — a registered Republican — in place at least until after the November election. He was appointed US attorney after the president fired his hard-charging predecessor, Preet Bharara, in 2017, soon after taking office. 

“It’s hard not to think that they must have him on the cusp of some kind of significant investigation,” this person said, noting that Mr Berman had been a “competent” US attorney.

Given the circumstances surrounding it, Ms Strauss will face even greater scrutiny. For all the southern district’s independence, any cases it wants to bring against Mr Trump or his allies will still be subject to oversight from Mr Barr. At the same time, observers say, any move against her by the administration could create a maelstrom.

Mimi Rocah, another southern district alumna, suggested that Ms Strauss had the right temperament for such a fraught assignment.

“She isn’t going to be stopped from bringing cases that she thinks should be brought,” Ms Rocah said. “She is also not going to bring cases just to score political points.”