Two U.S. Justice Department officials recounted to Congress in stinging detail on Wednesday how political appointees had intervened in criminal and antitrust cases to advance the personal interests of President Donald Trump and Attorney-General William Barr.
Aaron Zelinsky, a prosecutor who worked on the Russia investigation, told the House Judiciary Committee that senior law enforcement officials had stepped in to overrule career prosecutors and seek a more lenient prison sentence for Mr. Trump’s long-time friend Roger Stone “because of politics.”
“In the United States of America, we do not prosecute people based on politics, and we don’t cut them a break based on politics,” said Mr. Zelinsky, who testified by video because of the coronavirus pandemic. “But that wasn’t what happened here. Roger Stone was treated differently because of politics.”
John Elias, a senior career official in the antitrust division, charged that his supervisors improperly used their powers to investigate the marijuana industry and a deal between California and four major automakers at the behest of Mr. Barr. He likened their efforts to burdensome harassment meant to punish companies for decisions the Attorney-General and President opposed.
“Personal dislike of the industry is not a valid basis upon which to ground an antitrust investigation,” Mr. Elias said of the cannabis cases.
The two accounts painted a damning portrait of the Justice Department under Mr. Barr, made all the more remarkable given that the witnesses were both still department employees. They increased pressure on Mr. Barr to further explain decisions related to criminal cases involving Mr. Trump’s associates and the abrupt firing of the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, who had overseen some of the investigations into Trump allies.
Not long after the hearing got under way, the Justice Department announced that Mr. Barr had agreed to appear himself before the panel on July 28. Democrats had been threatening to issue a subpoena for his appearance. Seeking to further increase pressure on the Attorney-General, Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York and the panel’s chairman, told reporters after the hearing that the committee “may very well” pursue impeachment proceedings against Mr. Barr — a highly unlikely outcome given the political reality of a fast-approaching election.
During the hearing, lawmakers spent more time trying to argue divergent political points about Mr. Barr, Mr. Trump and the investigations that have hung over his presidency than they did eliciting facts about the Justice Department from either witness.
“These are merely the symptoms of an underlying disease,” Mr. Nadler said in opening remarks. “The sickness that we must address is Mr. Barr’s use of the Department of Justice as a weapon to serve the President’s petty, private interests.”
Democrats turned frequently to a third witness, Donald Ayer, who was deputy attorney-general under president George H.W. Bush and warned that under Mr. Barr, the country was “on the way to something far worse than Watergate.”
Republicans mounted an aggressive defense of Mr. Barr, relying on their witness, Michael Mukasey, who was attorney-general under president George W. Bush, to try to deflate Democrats’ arguments.
“The politics was in the previous administration,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top committee Republican. “Bill Barr is doing the Lord’s work trying to clean it up so that it doesn’t happen again.”
Republicans worked with the Justice Department to undermine the credibility of Mr. Zelinsky and Mr. Elias, who they pointed out had previously sought an assignment working with Democrats on the committee.
A department spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, said that Mr. Barr determined that the sentencing recommendation for Mr. Stone was “excessive and inconsistent with similar cases.” She said Mr. Barr did not discuss intervening in the case with the President or anyone at the White House. And she added that Mr. Zelinsky’s testimony was “based on his own interpretation of events and hearsay … not firsthand knowledge.”
Mr. Zelinsky was among four career prosecutors who withdrew in protest from the Stone case after political appointees overrode their recommendation that Mr. Stone receive seven to nine years in prison, in line with standard sentencing guidelines.
Mr. Stone had been convicted of committing seven felonies to impede a congressional inquiry that threatened Mr. Trump. Mr. Zelinsky described a fraught battle between the career prosecutors working the case and their superiors that spilled into public the day after prosecutors made their request, when Mr. Trump attacked it on Twitter as unjust.
Later that day, the department submitted a new, more lenient recommendation to the judge deciding what punishment to impose.
Mr. Zelinsky testified that supervisors had openly discussed the intervention to shorten the recommendation as motivated by “political reasons,” even though one supervisor agreed that doing so “was unethical and wrong.” He said they also pressed him to mischaracterize trial testimony and play down Mr. Stone’s misconduct so the department could recommend a lighter sentence.
Days before the intervention, Mr. Barr had manoeuvred the Senate-confirmed U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie Liu, out of her role and temporarily installed in her place a close aide from his own office, Timothy Shea.
Mr. Zelinsky said that he was told Mr. Shea “was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice” and complied because he was “afraid of” Mr. Trump. At one point, he said, a supervisor instructed him and other line prosecutors that they could be fired if they did not comply.
Under questioning by Mr. Jordan, Mr. Zelinsky identified J.P. Cooney – the chief of the fraud and public corruption section in the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia – as one of the supervisors who told him what was happening, but said there were at least two others. Democrats must now decide whether they try to seek testimony from Mr. Cooney.
Mr. Stone was ultimately sentenced to 40 months in prison and ordered to begin serving his sentence by June 30. He has asked a judge to grant him a two-month reprieve because of the pandemic, and on Wednesday the judge ordered Justice Department officials to report to her on its policies for dealing with such requests.
Mr. Elias’s account of the antitrust division more directly tied what he viewed as improper actions by Mr. Barr.
“At the direction of Attorney-General Barr, the antitrust division launched 10 full-scale reviews of merger activity taking place in the marijuana, or cannabis, industry” because the Attorney-General “did not like the nature of their underlying business,” Mr. Elias said in written testimony.
Mr. Elias also said that the department initiated a review of four major automakers the day after Mr. Trump said on Twitter that he was enraged by the news that the companies would adhere to higher fuel emissions standards than the federal government demands.
Under questioning by Democrat Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, chairman of the panel’s antitrust subcommittee, Mr. Elias said that he was “not aware” of any evidence at the time that the investigation would have served the public and that it was clear throughout that the automakers “had clear legal defences for what they were doing.”
In Mr. Elias’s account, the marijuana company reviews consumed the antitrust division, making up nearly a third of all of its cases in the fiscal year that ended in September. He said that staff members objected to the numerous requests for information that the department sent to the companies, in large part because they were seen as harassing and overly burdensome.
Mr. Elias, who served as chief of staff to Makan Delrahim, the head of the antitrust division, said that during a meeting in September, Mr. Delrahim “acknowledged at an all-staff meeting that the cannabis industry is unpopular ‘on the fifth floor,’ a reference to Attorney-General Barr’s offices.”
The department’s Office of Professional Responsibility investigated Mr. Elias’s concerns about the cannabis company merger reviews and determined that the division “acted reasonably and appropriately,” according to an e-mail sent to the division and obtained by The New York Times.
The office also found that given the “unique challenge” that the nascent cannabis industry poses for federal and state regulators, the department reasonably sought out additional information from the industry.
Republicans drew heavily on that report to undercut his account. In defending Mr. Barr, they also frequently cited a ruling Wednesday by a divided appeals court panel that ordered the dismissal of the case against Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national-security adviser. The ruling could be appealed.
Mr. Barr had ordered that case dropped last month even though Mr. Flynn had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about phone calls with the Russian ambassador – another move that critics of Mr. Barr have portrayed as favoritism to a presidential ally.