On the same day that a Trump-appointed judge backed Attorney General William Barr and instructed trial judge Emmet Sullivan to drop the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn on charges to which he pleaded guilty, Assistant US Attorney Aaron Zelinsky outlined the corruption of Barr’s Justice Department in similarly meddling in the case of Trump buddy Roger Stone.
Testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, former Stone prosecutor Zelinsky essentially repeated what he said in a bombshell statement yesterday: He was pressured to “cut Roger Stone a break” because “he was the president’s friend.”
What I heard–repeatedly–was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the President. I was told that the Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Timothy Shea, was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break, and that the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing instructions to us were based on political considerations. I was also told that the acting U.S. Attorney was giving Stone such unprecedentedly favorable treatment because he was “afraid of the President.”
Zelinsky says the prosecution faced pressure to leave some of Stone’s misdeeds out of the sentencing recommendation, but resisted. When Shea first tried to reduce the recommendation that Stone be sentenced to seven to nine years, Zelinsky threatened to leave the prosecution team, and Shea relented. But when the sentence recommendation was announced, Trump tweeted his dismay, and Barr stepped in to reduce it himself. That’s when Zelinsky left the prosecution; he is still an assistant US Attorney for the District of Maryland.
Appearing with Zelinsky was a career Justice Department lawyer who went to the inspector general because of what he perceived as Barr’s corrupt meddling in antitrust cases. John Elias, who has worked for presidents of both political parties, reported possible “abuse of authority, a gross waste of funds, and gross mismanagement,” with Barr particularly targeting the cannabis industry, as well as car companies trying to meet California’s rigorous emissions standards. Cannabis company cases normally make up 2 percent of Justice Department cases, Elias testified; under Barr, that number rose to 30 percent.
Donald Ayer, former deputy attorney general under George H.W. Bush, was there to back up the two whistle-blowers: “I was privileged to serve in the Department of Justice under two Republican and one Democratic president, and I am here because I believe that William Barr poses the greatest threat in my lifetime to our rule of law and to public trust in it.” He said Trump’s attorney general worked on behalf of “an authoritarian president.”
On behalf of House Republicans, former George W. Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey defended Barr’s intervention, since Judge Amy Sullivan ultimately sentenced Stone to 40 months, which was within the window Barr recommended. Thus, he argued, Barr’s intervention made no difference; effectively “no harm, no foul.”
Anyone who watched the impeachment hearings suffered some PTSD sitting through this one. Republicans performed their trademark stupid pet tricks, insisting Zelinsky was politically motivated and relying on hearsay while barely acknowledging Elias’s charges. Early on, Texas Representative Louie Gohmert almost got ejected for banging on the table like an angry toddler. Ohio Representative Jim Jordan mockingly compared Zelinsky to the anonymous whistle-blower who triggered impeachment, insisting he had no firsthand knowledge of Shea’s reasoning. “All of the people I mentioned were in fact in conversation with Acting US Attorney Shea,” the assistant US Attorney replied calmly.
Representative Mike Johnson even mocked Zelinsky for testifying remotely, even after he said he had a newborn at home and the pediatrician cautioned against visiting Congress in person because of the coronavirus pandemic. Speaking of the pandemic, Arizona Representative Andy Biggs brought back the insane Fox News–fomented Obama-era “scandals” involving the New Black Panther Party and the Fast and Furious program, as the coronavirus ravages his home state. It even devolved into a culture war over masks; Jordan refused to wear one, breaking House rules, and said “the only masking we should be discussing” was the so-called “unmasking” of Michael Flynn by the Obama administration.
Bush administration veteran Ayer denounced the “Obamagate nonsense” the GOP minority was “spewing.”
Democratic Representative Cedric Richmond had the best retort to those insisting the hearing was only about embarrassing Trump: “Let’s just be clear. If we wanted to embarrass the president, we would sit back and do nothing, and just let him continue to embarrass himself and say that you should drink bleach.”
Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin committed to tracking down the “liars and felons and frauds” assisted by Barr on behalf of Trump—an important promise given that many leading Democrats are wary of trying to impeach Barr, though he deserves it, so close to an election. Raskin is the type of legislator I trust to honor that commitment, and I hope he has a lot of company. Even if Joe Biden wins in November, Barr and Trump and other administration wrongdoers need to face consequences for their behavior over these four long, lawless years.