Barry Berke had a complicated case on his hands. His client, SAC Capital Advisors fund manager Michael Steinberg, had been arrested for insider trading. The bespectacled, Harvard-educated attorney had to distill a complex set of facts into a simple argument infused with certainty. “Caught in the crossfire of aggressive investigations of others, there is no basis for even the slightest blemish on his spotless reputation,” Berke told the press.
A jury convicted Steinberg, who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, but the charges were tossed out on appeal, in part because of Berke’s ability to make the case that the government’s prosecution, via a chain of informants, was overzealous. Now, U.S. House Democrats are counting on Berke to weave together the strands of evidence for a compelling narrative about a much different aggressive government action. The goal: to impeach the president of the United States.
The New York–based corporate litigator joined the staff of the House Judiciary Committee in February as the panel’s hired-gun inquisitor for its myriad investigations into Donald Trump. And when the Judiciary Committee considers articles of impeachment in the coming weeks, it is Berke who will be at the center of the case, either in front of the cameras or behind the scenes.
I’ve seen him do things in a courtroom that I wouldn’t have the courage to do.
Paul Shechtman, attorney
“He’s a tough criminal lawyer,” says Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s skillful, he thinks strategically and he’s excellent.” (The Judiciary Committee declined to make Berke available for an interview.)
On Capitol Hill, Berke, who is in his mid-50s, made his biggest impression with his questioning of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on the Robert Mueller investigation. For one, he got Lewandowski to admit he had lied to the public. “I have no obligation to be honest with the media just — because they’re just as dishonest as anybody else,” Lewandowski snapped after Berke played a TV clip of Lewandowski saying he didn’t remember Trump ever asking him to get involved with the Justice Department or former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
After a federal judge ruled Monday that former White House counsel Don McGahn must testify to Congress, it raises the prospect of another high-profile Berke questioning about the Mueller report coming soon.
But for Ukraine, Berke must draw on a different skill set: weaving together a narrative that the president abused his office when he pressured Ukraine to commit to investigations that could help him politically, deploying personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and others in a shadow foreign policy.
“We need everyday folks to understand what the facts are and what’s at stake and what we can do about it, and Barry is one of the best at telling a story like that and making a case like that,” says Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who also sits on the committee.
A graduate of Duke University and Harvard Law School, Berke is on leave from helping lead the litigation department of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel. Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, attacked the hiring of Berke — as well as that of Norm Eisen, a former Obama administration ethics czar — as an improper use of taxpayer dollars for partisan purposes, given their Trump criticism and Berke’s political donations to Democrats. “You have allowed these two individuals to become the judge, jury and executioner regarding impeachment proceedings,” Collins wrote in a February letter to Nadler. Collins later raised conflict of interest concerns for Berke, because Kramer Levin had represented the Trump Organization.
Despite Berke’s career defending well-off clients, people in his legal circles say it makes sense he would work with Democrats on a case that involves the public interest. Early on, he worked with the Federal Defenders of New York, a nonprofit dedicated to defending poor people accused of federal crimes.
Berke then ascended to the heights of corporate law, building a reputation for skilled cross-examination — and theatrics. Berke famously used a red handkerchief to role-play with one witness who was key in exonerating his client in a 2011 illegal tax shelter case. He put the prop in his breast pocket to play a real estate developer, returning to the device repeatedly over four days of questioning.
Paul Shechtman, an attorney who has known Berke for years, calls him “one of the two or three best trial lawyers of his generation” in New York. “I’ve seen him do things in a courtroom that I wouldn’t have the courage to do,” says Shechtman, who served in the administration of New York Republican Gov. George Pataki.
Paul Coggins, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas who has worked with Berke and developed a friendship, recalls when the two had lunch at the Harvard Club in New York about 15 years ago. Nearly everyone in the room came over to “kiss the ring,” Coggins says. “I figured they all either had been in trouble, were now in trouble or could soon be in trouble.”
Before joining the committee, Berke was also pro bono counsel to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which was co-founded by Eisen. The two became high-profile Trump critics, writing extensively to make the case that Trump obstructed justice during the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Berke, Eisen and Nadler could recently be seen in the Capitol complex heading into a sensitive compartmented information facility — the domain of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who has led impeachment hearings into the Ukraine affair. The California Democrat edged Nadler out of a starring role in the impeachment inquiry after the Democratic caucus concluded that Nadler’s own hearings had amounted to a circus that did little to advance the Democratic cause.
It will be on Berke to help Judiciary reclaim its seriousness as it moves toward historic House votes on impeachment. And it offers a full-circle moment in the small world of New York law. He became involved with New York’s Coalition for the Homeless some years ago, after volunteering his legal services when the city’s mayor launched what Berke, in an interview with the website Lawdragon, called a “baseless investigation” into the nonprofit. The mayor’s name: Rudy Giuliani.