Prosecutors Warn of Politicization in Justice Department

Attorney General William Barr listens during a roundtable with President Donald Trump about America’s seniors on June 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Reigniting calls for Attorney General William Barr’s impeachment, two Justice Department attorneys told a House panel Wednesday politics have infested some of the agency’s highest-profile actions, including the prosecution of Roger Stone.

“What I saw was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from every other defendant,” Aaron Zelinsky, who served on the team that prosecuted Stone, said Wednesday. “He received breaks that are, in my experience, unheard of.”

Zelinsky’s comments came in a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee focusing on allegations that Barr has wielded the Justice Department’s power as a political tool to aid President Donald Trump and those close to him.

“He is the president’s fixer,” Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said at the hearing. “He has shown us that there is one set of rules for the president’s friends and another set of rules for the rest of us.”

High-profile controversies at the Justice Department, including related to the Stone case and the decision to drop the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, have prompted calls from some Democrats for the House to go forward with impeaching Barr.

Though Nadler earlier this week said the calls to impeach Barr were a “waste of time” because he would not be removed by the Republican-controlled Senate, he was more open to the idea of the House launching an impeachment inquiry against the attorney general when speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s hearing.  

“We’re looking into that, we may very well,” Nadler said when asked about the possibility of impeachment.

Zelinsky withdrew from his job on the Stone case in February after the Justice Department walked back an initial sentencing recommendation for the Trump ally. One day after recommending Stone spend between seven and nine years in prison, the Justice Department filed a new memo suggesting a significantly lighter sentence after Trump publicly called the initial recommendation a “miscarriage of justice.”

Zelinsky told the committee the new sentencing memo came together in the hours after Trump’s public criticisms of the initial recommendation and that the prosecutors on the team were not able to review it in advance.

Aaron Zelinsky, a career Justice Department prosecutor, testifies remotely before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool)

Now a federal prosecutor in Maryland, Zelinsky said his team was in particular pressured to drop sentencing enhancements for threats Stone made to Randy Credico, a key witness in the trial.

In written testimony, Zelinsky told the committee then-acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Timothy Shea was under “heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break” and that Stone was receiving special treatment because of his political connections.

When he raised concerns to supervisors that politics were corrupting Stone’s case, Zelinsky said he was told “this was not the hill to die on” and that he could lose his job if he deviated.

Painting a similar picture, John Elias, a trial attorney in the Justice Department’s antitrust office, said Wednesday the agency was responding to a Trump tweet when it launched an antitrust probe into an agreement between California and a group of car companies to set emissions standards higher than national requirements.

In written testimony, Elias detailed to the committee how political appointees at the Justice Department ordered the investigation the day after Trump criticized the companies for joining the compact. Citing the fact that the investigations were launched so soon after the Trump tweet, Elias said they did not appear to have legitimate backing. 

“To answer your question, no, I don’t believe there was a proper basis to actually go forward with an investigation,” Elias said.

Elias also said the agency opened baseless investigations into the merger of marijuana companies, pulling in “dozens of staff” in what Elias viewed as a “gross misuse of resources.”

He testified that when staffers raised concerns about the investigations, Makan Delrahim, who leads the agency’s antitrust division, said the probes were being undertaken because the marijuana industry is not popular “on the fifth floor,” which refers to Barr’s offices at the Justice Department.

John Elias, a career official in the Justice Department’s antitrust division, is sworn in before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool)

The hearing came hours after the D.C. Circuit ordered a federal judge to grant the Justice Department’s request to drop the case against Flynn. The agency moved last month to drop the case against Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI, sparking new claims that the Justice Department was treating Trump’s political allies differently than other defendants.

To Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, the Stone and Flynn prosecutions, as well as Elias’ testimony about antitrust probes, show Barr has used the Justice Department for Trump’s political goals. 

Shortly after the hearing began, the Justice Department announced Barr will testify at an oversight hearing before the committee next month.

As has become common in hearings probing alleged wrongdoing in the Trump administration, Republicans defended Barr largely by pointing to perceived faults in the FBI’s investigation into the origins of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Representative Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the committee, pointed the finger at the Obama Justice Department and praised Barr’s tenure in office.

“The politics was in the previous administration, Bill Barr is doing the Lord’s work to clean it up so that it doesn’t happen again,” Jordan said.

Jordan also noted a federal judge ultimately gave Stone a sentence well below the agency’s initial sentencing recommendation and in line with the revised memorandum. 

The hearing was contentious at times, both between members and witnesses and between the lawmakers on the committee themselves.

Giving a scathing assessment of Barr’s performance while testifying alongside Zelinsky and Elias, Donald Ayer, a Georgetown Law professor and former deputy attorney general, went well over the time given him for opening statements.

Noticing the breach, Representative Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, began to bang his ring on the table in front of him to mimic a gavel.

Ayer raised his voice to go over Gohmert’s tapping, which continued after Nadler allowed the law professor to finish his statement. When Gohmert resumed the tapping, Representative Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat, asked Nadler to call the House sergeant at arms to stop the disruption.

“He’s way beyond his time and if there are no rules about when people can talk, there’s no rules about when you can make noise,” Gohmert said in response to Johnson’s request.

When Nadler allowed Ayer to continue, Gohmert accused the chairman of not enforcing the committee’s rules equally.

Representative Doug Collins, R-Ga., later went after Elias for having sought a job on the committee’s Democratic staff, and Representative Mike Johnson, R-La., criticized Zelinsky for appearing before the committee remotely.

Zelinsky said he did not come to Capitol Hill because he has a newborn and did not want to risk contracting Covd-19. 

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