Two US Department of Justice (DOJ) officials delivered indicting congressional testimony Wednesday, accusing political appointees of intervening in criminal and antitrust cases to serve the personal interests of President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr.
Assistant US Attorney Aaron Zelinsky, who previously served as a prosecutor on the Russia investigation, testified to the House Judiciary Committee that senior government officials had interfered in the prosecution of Trump’s personal friend Roger Stone “because of politics.” Zelinsky also stated, “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.” But in the prosecution of Stone, “that wasn’t what happened here. Roger Stone was treated differently because of politics.”
Zelinsky was among a group of career prosecutors who recommended a sentence of up to nine years against Stone, who had been convicted of committing seven felonies to impede a congressional inquiry that threatened Trump. However, the prosecution quickly came under fire from Trump on Twitter for allowing a “miscarriage of justice.” The department submitted a second far more lenient recommendation shortly after the president’s criticism. Zelinsky and his fellow prosecutors then decided to resign from the case in protest.
In his testimony, Zelinsky described supervisors discussing the fact that the decision to reduce the sentence was made for “political reasons,” and that one even stated it “was unethical and wrong.” He also described requests from supervisors to downplay Stone’s misconduct and trial testimony to justify the lighter sentence as well as potential consequences if they failed to comply. The previous US attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie Liu, had also been removed from her office just days before the reduction in sentencing and replaced by a former aide of Barr, Timothy Shea. Zelinsky also testified that Shea was “afraid of the President” and was under “heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break” for “political considerations.”
Republican members of the committee criticized Zelinsky’s testimony as hearsay and as being politically motivated. However, Stone ultimately received only a 40-month prison sentence instead of the nine years previously requested. He was initially scheduled to begin serving his sentence on June 30th but is currently waiting on a request for a two-month delay because of the current COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on incarcerated populations.
The second prominent member of the DOJ to testify was John Elias, a senior official in the antitrust division who served as chief of staff to Makan Delrahim, the head of the antitrust division. Elias alleged that his supervisors improperly investigated the marijuana industry as well as a deal between four car companies and the State of California. He also testified that this targeting was done at the order of Barr because of his political and personal interests.
Elias stated that the cannabis investigations were “not bona fide antitrust investigations” and that they “accounted for 29 percent” of the division investigations in the 2019 Fiscal Year. He continued by adding that “the investigations I will describe are not investigations of potential violations of federal drug law,” because “An appropriations rider restricts the Justice Department from prosecuting medical marijuana usage in states that have legalized it.” Elias suggested that the purposes of the investigations were simply to harass the companies and punish them for decisions contrary to the interests of the attorney general.
The criticism of the president and Barr come at a difficult time as they are currently embroiled in an ongoing scandal over the removal of US attorney Geoffrey Berman. Berman had previously prosecuted a number of the administration’s allies. Barr reportedly tried to force Berman to resign by announcing his resignation himself, which Berman then denied. Subsequently, Berman was fired in a move that has raised many questions as to Barr’s impartially as Attorney General.