WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Appearing before U.S. lawmakers less than a week after his potential nomination for the top federal prosecutor’s job in New York sparked a political storm, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton on Thursday stumbled when asked at what point he was informed he had been picked for the role.
Clayton, who has come under severe criticism from Democrats for becoming embroiled in the removal of Geoffrey Berman as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, initially said “last weekend” in reference to June 19, before later correcting himself to say it was a week before.
“It was the weekend of June 12 and was entirely my idea. This is something I had been thinking about for several months as a possible continuation of public service,” Clayton said in a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee.
The hearing came after Attorney General William Barr announced here on Friday that Berman was stepping down and would be replaced by Clayton.
Berman’s office, which is known for prosecuting the most high-profile terrorism cases, Wall Street financial crimes and government corruption, has not shied from taking on figures in President Donald Trump’s orbit.
Only after Barr backtracked from his plan to handpick Berman’s temporary replacement, allowing Deputy U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss to take the reins, did Berman agree to step down on Saturday.
In an email earlier this week to his staff, Clayton said he had pursued the New York prosecutor’s job because he had a “strong desire to continue in public service” while returning to the city where his family is based.
Republican lawmakers on Thursday praised Clayton, one of the Trump administration’s more low-profile officials, for his “integrity” in his current role. Some wished him well in potential future positions.
But the saga has sparked concerns among Democrats of possible White House interference at the SEC.
“I am deeply concerned that while your nomination to this important post is pending, President Trump and Attorney General Barr may try to interfere with your ability to independently and effectively oversee the Securities and Exchange Commission,” ,” said Representative Maxine Waters, the Democratic chairwoman of the House committee.
Clayton told lawmakers he would seek to maintain his independence from carrying out any political favors while in his current role. He said he would not comment on any details regarding his potential nomination.
In the meantime, he also said he is fully committed to serving as SEC chairman.
“Whether in my current position or in any other position, I commit to doing it independently,” Clayton said.
Reporting by Katanga Johnson; Editing by Paul Simao