Note: this article, featuring our client John Elias, was originally published here.
Prosecutor to Tell Congress of Pressure From ‘Highest Levels’ of Justice Dept. to Cut Roger Stone ‘a Break’
A federal prosecutor and another Justice Department official plan to tell Congress on Wednesday that Attorney General William P. Barr and his top deputies issued inappropriate orders amid investigations and trials “based on political considerations” and a desire to cater to President Trump.
Aaron Zelinsky, an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland formerly detailed to Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, will tell the House Judiciary Committee that prosecutors involved in the criminal trial of Trump’s friend Roger Stone experienced “heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break” by requesting a lighter sentence, according to Zelinsky’s prepared remarks. The expectation, he intends to testify, was that Stone should be treated “differently and more leniently” because of his “relationship with the President.”
Zelinsky will be joined by John Elias, an official in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, who will say that Barr ordered staff to investigate marijuana company mergers simply because he “did not like the nature of their underlying business,” according to his prepared testimony.
As a result, the antitrust division launched 10 reviews of mergers in the marijuana industry, according to Elias’s prepared remarks, and was ordered to probe a deal between major U.S. automakers and the state of California after Trump tweeted about it disparagingly. Months later, when the matter seemed near a close, political leaders ordered a subsequent investigation after California announced it would purchase vehicles only from automakers that complied with fuel efficiency standards, Elias’s prepared testimony says.
Together, their accounts — which will be delivered under subpoena — are a damning indictment of Barr’s management of the Justice Department, a tenure, House Democrats charge, defined by “unprecedented politicization.” The testimony is expected to raise the stakes surrounding a subpoena the Judiciary Committee chair, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), has promised to issue for Barr’s testimony early next month.
In a statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec took aim at Zelinsky, saying that Barr determined the sentencing recommendation for Stone proposed by him and his colleagues was “excessive and inconsistent with similar cases,” and he thus directed Tim Shea, then the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia, to “leave the sentencing to the discretion of the judge.” She repeated, as she has in the past, that Barr did not discuss the matter with Trump or anyone at the White House before the president tweeted about the case, after which Barr intervened to reverse career prosecutors’ recommendation.
“Notably, Mr. Zelinsky, a line prosecutor, did not have any discussion with the Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney, or any other member of political leadership at the Department about the sentencing; instead, Mr. Zelinksy’s allegations concerning the U.S. Attorney’s motivation are based on his own interpretation of events and hearsay (at best), not first-hand knowledge,” Kupec said. “The Attorney General stated during his confirmation hearing that it his job to ensure that the administration of justice and the enforcement of the law is above and away from politics. He has and will continue to approach all cases at the Department of Justice with that commitment to the rule of law and the fair and impartial administration of justice.”
Democrats have long objected to Barr’s stewardship of the Justice Department, listing among their grievances the attorney general’s intervention in criminal matters of consequence to the president, his refusal to defend the Affordable Care Act in court, and his recent order to disperse protesters from outside the White House, which resulted in police using tear gas and horses to push back a largely nonviolent group.
But Barr has successfully evaded testifying before the Judiciary panel since Democrats took over the House majority in 2019 — despite being issued a subpoena last year and then being held in contempt upon defying it. Though Barr had agreed to testify in March as part of the panel’s politicization probe, that session was scrapped because of the pandemic and never rescheduled.
The campaign to subpoena Barr gained momentum after the weekend firing of former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman, who prosecuted members of Trump’s inner circle over the past two and a half years. But many, including Nadler, expect that Barr may still flout a summons to appear July 2.
If that happens, it is unclear what recourse may be available to Democrats. Nadler has ruled out attempting to impeach the attorney general, telling CNN over the weekend that such a move would be a “waste of time.” And with only a handful of workweeks before Congress turns its focus to November’s election, it is unlikely there would be time to seek court enforcement of a disregarded subpoena.
In the meantime, political disputes over the Justice Department continue raging on committee daises on both sides of the Capitol.
Late Monday, the House Judiciary Committee’s top Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), wrote Nadler to accuse him of “posturing” against Barr as retaliation against his work “to expose how the Obama-Biden Administration targeted” Trump’s 2016 campaign. In the Republican-controlled Senate, the Judiciary Committee and the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee are looking into the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation, which became the foundation for Mueller’s probe.
As Zelinsky and Elias speak to Barr’s alleged transgressions, some of the cases they will cite as evidence are continuing to develop.
Zelinsky, who resigned in protest after his formal objections to the handling of Stone’s case were ignored, is expected to testify that prosecutors were told “to water down and in some cases outright distort events that transpired in his trial, and the criminal conduct that gave rise to his conviction,” in order to justify the lighter sentencing request.
He added that the U.S. attorney in charge of the prosecution agreed to give Stone “unprecedentedly favorable treatment because he was ‘afraid of the President.’ ”
Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress, is supposed to report to prison on June 30 to begin serving his 40-month sentence. (Prosecutors had recommended between seven and nine years before they were overruled.)
On Tuesday, his defense team asked a judge to postpone that date, citing concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus in many detention facilities. In their filing, Stone’s attorneys wrote that the U.S. attorney’s office did not oppose a 60-day extension.
Trump has strongly hinted he will pardon his friend and former adviser.