WASHINGTON – Still recovering from a highly public confrontation that led to the firing of one of its most prominent prosecutors, the Justice Department is again under obvious focus when two of its employees told Congress on Wednesday that the leadership of the The agency abused its power at the behest of President Donald Trump.
Aaron Zelinsky, one of the attorneys who prosecuted Roger Stone, said the Justice Department gave the Republican operation “unprecedented favorable treatment” and pressured prosecutors to “cut Stone a break” by recommending a lenient sentence. because he is an ally of the president, according to his prepared statement. He and the other prosecutors were told to go, Zelinsky said, or they could be fired.
John Elias, a lawyer for the department’s Antitrust Division, said the agency’s political appointments conducted unwarranted investigations into career employees’ objections. An investigation, Elias said, began after a tweet from Trump.
The couple offered critical criticism of the Justice Department leadership to the House Judiciary Committee, which is investigating allegations of political interference within the agency.
‘Unprecedented favorable treatment’: The DOJ gave Roger Stone a favorable deal because he is an ally of the president, says the prosecutor
Such potentially damaging testimony, given in a public performance, is unusual in that Justice Department career attorneys generally don’t go to Congress, much less publicly rebuke their own superiors. A 2000 Justice Department letter said the agency believed career prosecutors should not be required to testify before Congress because doing so could compromise their independence.
The fact that Zelinsky and Elias have said it speaks volumes about concerns among career employees about what they see as politicization of the Justice Department, said William Yeomans, a Justice Department veteran who served five Republican presidents and Democrats, from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. .
“It is incredibly disturbing. And I think it is quite brave for them to show up,” Yeomans said. “There is a very strong ethic in the Justice Department against going public. They avoid the press, they avoid advertising. For these career prosecutors to think that things have gone so far from the avenues that they need to talk, that says a lot about what it’s happening within the Justice Department. “
Former Attorney General Mike Mukasey, who also testified on Wednesday, defended Attorney General William Barr, calling him an “experienced and impartial” leader.
“There seems to be a trend these days to read hidden motives in every action by Attorney General Barr,” Mukasey told lawmakers. “I think we are fortunate to have someone of his temperament, talent and convictions in office during his difficult time in our history.”
Barr agreed to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on July 28.
The testimonies are the latest allegations of political interference.
Zelinsky and Elias were subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee, but Yeomans said the two could have challenged the subpoena in Congress as others in the Trump administration have done during impeachment proceedings against the president.
The testimonies are the latest in a parade of allegations that Barr has made the Justice Department a political annex to the president.
Last weekend, Barr and Geoffrey Berman, the former chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan, clashed over control of one of the most powerful Justice Department offices that prosecuted and investigated several Trump allies. Barr had announced that Berman will resign as the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York to make way for the president’s favorite replacement. But Berman responded, saying he has no intention of resigning. Trump then fired Berman, ending a confrontation that fueled allegations that the administration is removing those it deems unfair or a threat.
In the prosecution of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a retired federal judge accused the Justice Department of abusing its prosecuting power by providing special treatment to an ally of the President. The department has tried to dismiss the case against Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI.
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Rep. Jerry Nadler, DN.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said this is “part of a pattern” of giving presidential allies special treatment while attacking enemies for scrutiny. Nadler called Barr the “repairman” for the president.
Senior Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Barr’s actions since taking office last year have been “about correcting the injustice,” citing a federal appeals court decision to dismiss the Flynn’s case. Barr, Jordan said, “wants to get to the bottom of all this, and now he’s political?”
‘Unethical and wrong’
Zelinsky, one of the prosecutors on former special adviser Robert Mueller’s team, said the Justice Department leadership from the highest levels pressured prosecutors to recommend a lenient sentence for Stone for political reasons, a move that a supervisor acknowledged. that it was “unethical and incorrect”. He said that he and the other prosecutors in the case repeatedly expressed concern about “that political favoritism,” but that their objections “were not met.”
Zelinsky and the other three career lawyers who tried Stone dropped the case in protest. Prosecutors had recommended a seven to nine-year prison sentence for Stone, whom a jury had convicted of seven crimes, including lying to Congress to protect Trump and his campaign. But the Justice Department deviated from that recommendation, an unusual move that comes after Trump’s public criticism of the ruling.
The Justice Department said Zelinsky’s allegations were his own interpretation of the events and were not based on conversations with Barr or others in the political leadership. The department said Barr believed the sentence’s recommendation was too excessive and decided to “correct” it independently, without consulting Trump or anyone in the White House.
During the hearing, Mukasey, who served as attorney general for President George W. Bush, said the disagreement between top officials and career attorneys over a sentencing recommendation does not amount to politicizing the department.
“In a highly publicized and politically charged case, it was not only appropriate but also advisable for the attorney general to ensure that the government’s sentencing recommendation does not promote such unworthy ends,” Mukasey said, adding that a federal judge finally gave Stone a lesser sentence.
The Roger Stone case: Prosecutors resigned when Justice Department backs down on prison recommendation for Trump ally
Another career prosecutor, Elias, said the agency’s leadership launched multiple investigations of marijuana mergers because Barr personally disadvantages the cannabis industry.
In his opening statement, Elias said that the head of the Antitrust Division acknowledged during a staff meeting that the investigations were launched because the cannabis industry was unpopular “on the fifth floor,” a reference to Barr’s office at headquarters. from the Department of Justice.
“Personal aversion to the industry is not an adequate basis on which to base an antitrust investigation,” said Elias, who joined the Justice Department in 2006.
Elias also testified about the Justice Department’s decision to investigate whether four major automakers violated antitrust laws by reaching an agreement with California to reduce emissions. The companies agreed to adopt environmental standards that were stricter than the Trump administration’s preferred rules, prompting a series of furious tweets from the president.
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“The day after the tweets, the political leadership of the Antitrust Division instructed staff to initiate an investigation,” Elias said, adding that career staff believed there was no basis for the investigation because states have wide freedom to adopt environmental regulations.
A Justice Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on Elias’s allegations.
What is unusual, what is not
Yeomans said it is not unusual for the Justice Department under different administrations to have different political priorities. For example, consent decrees and investigations by police departments accused of systemic abuse were a priority during the Obama administration. The Trump administration has drifted away from consent decrees and has focused on other civil rights investigations involving religious freedom and sexual harassment.
But what is very unusual, Yeomans said, is that political officials interfere in criminal proceedings. “Interfering in an individual case is another matter,” he said.
“The Justice Department has had its problems over the years, but it has always maintained its dignity,” Yeomans said. “Its value to the country depends on its legitimacy. It depends on the people who believe that career prosecutors are making decisions based on facts and laws. When we move away from that, the department suffers as an institution. Once legitimacy is compromised , it is difficult to reconquer. “
Contributing: Kevin Johnson