Justice Department officials say decisions are politicized

Justice Department officials at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday painted a critical picture of an agency growing politicized under President Trump and Attorney General William Barr, who is set to testify before the panel for the first time next month.

During a heated hearing, Aaron Zelinsky, a career prosecutor who worked on the government’s case against Trump ally Roger Stone, and John Elias, a veteran antitrust attorney in the department, described a series of actions by the top Justice brass they viewed as unusual and concerning.

Zelinsky raised alarm about the handling of the case against Stone, alleging that political considerations led to more favorable treatment for Stone and a lighter sentencing recommendation. He said he heard “repeatedly” that Stone won leniency because of his relationship to the president.

“What I saw was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from every other defendant,” Zelinsky said. “He received breaks that are, in my experience, unheard of and all the more so for a defendant in his circumstances — a defendant who lied to Congress, remained unrepentant and who made threats against a judge and a witness in his case.”

Zelinsky said supervisors pressed prosecutors to go along with a more lenient sentencing recommendation. He said J.P. Cooney, the head of the public corruption section of the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., said the case was “not the hill worth dying on” and that they risked losing their jobs if they didn’t go along with the lighter sentence.

Cooney took over the Stone case after prosecutors withdrew in protest.

Zelinsky also singled out Alessio Evangelista, who until recently was the No. 2 official in the D.C. federal prosecutor’s office.

The Trump administration and its GOP allies have denied wrongdoing, and Barr, who on Wednesday agreed to testify before the panel July 28, has said that the case was not discussed with the president.

Elias alleged that Barr pushed antitrust enforcers to pursue illegitimate investigations into the cannabis industry and major automakers’ agreement with California to abide by strict emissions standards.

GOP lawmakers repeatedly protested the hearing by raising parliamentary inquiries about witnesses testifying virtually and challenging witnesses whose opening statements went beyond their allotted time.

Minutes into the hearing, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) repeatedly tapped on his desk as former Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer, a witness, went over his time limit when delivering his opening statement.

That led some Democrats to ask whether the sergeant-at-arms could remove Gohmert.

“There’s no rules about when you can make noise,” Gohmert retorted.

The fireworks are likely to be as pronounced for Barr’s appearance next month. Democrats are outraged over Barr’s and Justice’s handling of cases involving the president’s allies, as well as the weekend firing of Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Democrats have also criticized Justice’s unusual decision to drop its case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn despite his pleading guilty to lying to the FBI. The hearing Wednesday came just hours after an appeals court ordered a judge to grant Justice’s motion to withdraw its case.

Republicans repeatedly pointed to the appeals court decision, authored by a Trump appointee, as evidence that there was no wrongdoing in the DOJ’s Flynn reversal.

They sought to undermine some of the witnesses, questioning whether Elias and Zelinsky had their own political motivations for testifying before the committee.

Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) pressed Elias on whether he had sought to be detailed to work for House Democrats on antitrust issues as well as on oversight matters pertaining to the House impeachment inquiry late last year. Elias replied that he believes he sought to be detailed at the start of 2019, before the probe into Trump’s contacts with Ukraine was underway.

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the top Republican on the panel, sought to undercut Zelinsky’s testimony by questioning whether he’d talked to anyone making decisions on Stone’s sentencing.

“So you didn’t talk to any of the people that ultimately made these decisions, did you Mr. Zelinsky,” Jordan asked Zelinsky. “You didn’t talk to the attorney general, you didn’t talk to the deputy attorney general, you didn’t talk to the U.S. attorney.”

Zelinsky said he based his testimony on firsthand observations and what he was told by supervisors. He said he tried to talk to the U.S. attorney but was not granted a meeting.

Jordan also knocked Zelinsky for testifying virtually, but Zelinsky pointed to his newborn child as the reason he could not attend in person.

Democrats, meanwhile, showed that they are sharpening their knives for Barr’s appearance next month.

And in a sign of how the bad blood has built up, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), an outspoken progressive on the panel, called for Barr’s removal.

“We should pursue the impeachment of Bill Barr because he is reigning terror on the rule of law,” Cohen said, while railing against the recent Flynn ruling.

Barr has long been on Democrats’ hit list, following his handling of the conclusions of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference.

Democrats have also lashed out at Barr over his role in clearing a group of peaceful protesters outside the White House so Trump could have a photo-op in front of a church that was vandalized by some demonstrators protesting police brutality the day before.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Barr have clashed before, most notably when Democrats voted last year to hold Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for defying congressional subpoenas. The move yielded little because the Justice Department chose not to pursue the contempt charge against its boss.

Tags Donald Trump Donald Trump Doug Collins Jerry Nadler Jim Jordan Louie Gohmert Robert Mueller Roger Stone Steve Cohen Wilbur Ross William Barr

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