Two prosecutors in the Justice Department leveled remarkable allegations against Attorney General William Barr and the Justice Department in congressional testimony on Wednesday, accusing senior Justice Department officials of politicizing investigations and the sentencing of a friend of President Donald Trump.
Wednesday’s hearing with Aaron Zelinsky, a prosecutor on former special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, and John Elias, a career official in the Antitrust Division, was a prelude to the looming showdown between Barr and House Democrats who have accused Barr of abusing his office on multiple fronts.
The allegations from Zelinsky and Elias represented a stark public admonishment of Barr, who critics say has taken multiple actions to protect Trump and rewrite the history of the Mueller investigation, from distorting Mueller’s findings to dropping charges secured by Mueller’s team against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Zelinsky, who now works in the Maryland US Attorney’s Office, told the Judiciary Committee Wednesday that the Justice Department sentencing recommendation for Trump’s longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone was watered down due to political pressure from the “highest levels” of the Justice Department as a result of Stone’s “relationship with the President.” Zelinsky, who took Stone’s case to court, said in response to House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler’s questions that Barr’s decision in the Stone case was wrong, unethical and against department policy.
“I was told there was heavy political pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Roger Stone a break,” Zelinksy said.
Republicans charged that Democrats’ accusations were misguided, arguing it was actually the Obama administration that politicized the Justice Department by investigating members of Trump’s team. Rep. Louie Gohmert disrupted the opening statement of a witness who went over the time limit in a protest of the proceedings.
The charges against Barr at a House Judiciary Committee hearing came at the same time that Barr agreed to testify before the committee next month, in what would be his first appearance before the panel since his confirmation, after Nadler, a New York Democrat, had threatened a subpoena.
Elias accused Barr of ordering investigations into 10 mergers of cannabis companies because he did not like the industry, and charged that political leadership in the Antitrust Division pushed an investigation into California’s emissions standards last year following a tweet from the President attacking the state’s agreement with automakers.
Elias said that he and another whistleblower had reported their concerns about the cannabis company investigations to the Justice Department’s inspector general and the Office of Special Counsel, which are investigating.
Wednesday’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee comes amid a new flurry of questions surrounding Barr’s decision to fire Geoffrey Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which has investigated Trump and his associates. Berman initially refused Barr’s request for his resignation, vowing to remain until the Senate confirmed his replacement sparking a chaotic situation that ended after Trump and Barr fired him and Berman agreed to leave.
Nadler said the effort to remove Berman was part of a “clear and dangerous pattern of conduct.” After the hearing, he said the committee “may very well” pursue impeachment of Barr, as some House Democrats have demanded, after he said over the weekend that doing so would be a “waste of time” because of the Republican-controlled Senate.
“We’re looking into that, we may very well,” Nadler said Wednesday. Asked what changed, Nadler said, “I think the weight of the evidence and of what’s happened leads to that conclusion.”
Republicans clash with Zelinsky
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, charged that it was the Obama administration that politicized the Justice Department by investigating members of Trump’s team, pointing to Wednesday’s appeals court ruling that the charges against Flynn should be dropped immediately.
“They’re not political, they’re just right,” Jordan said. “Bill Barr just simply wants to get to the bottom of all this, and somehow that’s all political, when in fact the politics was in the previous administration.”
Republicans engaged in several disruptions as the hearing got underway, raising procedural objections about Zelinsky testifying remotely. When one witness went over the five-minute time limit during opening statements, Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas repeatedly tapped on his desk to protest, prompting some Democrats to call for his removal.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Florida Democrat, admonished Jordan while she was acting chair for not wearing a mask, after Nadler instructed everyone not speaking to wear them inside the committee room.
“The unmasking this committee should be concerned about is the unmasking that occurred at the end of the Obama administration,” Jordan shot back.
Republicans asked Zelinsky several questions about episodes during the Mueller investigation that Zelinsky said he was not allowed to discuss because his agreement with the Justice Department limited his testimony to the Stone sentencing and what was in the Mueller report.
Kupec said in a statement Tuesday that Zelinsky did not discuss Stone’s sentencing with Barr, and that his allegations were based on hearsay.
‘Not a tough calculation’
The Stone case Zelinsky described on Wednesday has become one of the most notable clashes between career attorneys and Trump’s political appointees, and has added to a growing shadow over Barr’s tenure as attorney general.
Mueller had originally indicted Stone alongside the DC US Attorney’s Office, as essentially a capstone prosecution near the end of the Russia investigation.
Four prosecutors, including Zelinsky, took Stone to trial last fall, claiming the longtime Trump friend had vigorously tried to cover up his pursuit of WikiLeaks as the organization was preparing to disclose stolen Democratic documents.
A jury found Stone guilty of seven counts, including telling five lies to a Republican-led congressional committee in 2017, obstructing the House’s Russia investigation and threatening a witness set to testify to Congress.
Before his sentencing, the US Attorney’s Office in DC calculated Stone deserved as many as nine years in prison for the crimes. But Barr forced the US Attorney’s Office to walk back the recommendation, softening it for Stone. Zelinsky and his three colleagues from the trial quit the case over Barr’s intervention. He said on Wednesday he was warned he could lose his job if he didn’t lighten the approach to Stone.
“You were also told that the acting (US Attorney Timothy Shea) was giving Roger Stone favorable treatment because he was afraid of President Trump, is that right?” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York, asked Zelinsky. “Yes,” Zelinsky said.
Zelinsky added he was pressured to dial back his team’s descriptions of the consequences of Stone’s witness tampering.
“It was not a tough calculation” for Stone’s sentence, given the gravity of his crimes, Zelinsky said, defending his work. “We took an oath to prosecute without fear.”
Zelinsky on Wednesday also reiterated prosecutors’ findings that Trump and Stone talked during the campaign multiple times, and that one witness, former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, testified at Stone’s trial that the two spoke about WikiLeaks’ releases.
The issue has come back in the spotlight in the past several days, as Stone has agitated for a presidential pardon and to delay his scheduled date to report to jail, and after the Justice Department re-released the Mueller report outlining how extensively witnesses described the campaign’s interest in WikiLeaks and the possibility that Trump lied in sworn written answers to Mueller.
Investigations into DOJ over cannabis probes
The Justice Department’s independent inspector general and the executive branch’s Office of Special Counsel are reviewing whether the DOJ investigated cannabis companies because of political feelings against them, Elias testified Wednesday.
Elias, the acting Antitrust Division chief of staff, disclosed the existence of the investigations into the upper echelons of Barr’s DOJ, saying he was one of two whistleblowers alleging problematic DOJ demands of cannabis suppliers that were interested in merging.
After he discussed it in his hearing, a memo obtained by CNN further showed the route that the whistleblower complaints on the cannabis investigations took.
In short, Elias and another anonymous whistleblower took their concerns to Justice’s Inspector General Michael Horowitz and to the Office of Special Counsel, another agency set up to receive whistleblower complaints. The OSC referred the complaint it received to DOJ’s internal Office of Professional Responsibility, which responded on June 11 that it didn’t believe there was reason for it to be investigated and closed their investigation.
The Antitrust Division, “at the direction of the Attorney General’s Office, placed these demands on merging cannabis companies in order to slow the growth of the cannabis industry due to DOJ leadership’s animosity towards the industry,” according to letter from the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility summarizing the review.
OPR determined the antitrust scrutiny of the companies “was reasonable” and “would not have violated any relevant laws, regulations, rules, policies, or guidelines,” OPR’s Director Jeffrey Ragsdale wrote, essentially defending Barr. Ragsdale earned Barr’s appointment to the position less than a month earlier.
The OPR finding was “perplexing to me,” Elias countered during his testimony.
Elias’ lawyer, David Seide of the Government Accountability Project, said after the hearing Wednesday the investigations independent of the DOJ were ongoing.
This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.
CNN’s Evan Perez and Austen Bundy contributed to this report.