Justice Dept. Officials Testify on Politicization Under Barr

WASHINGTON — Two Justice Department officials began to deliver stinging congressional testimony on Wednesday, accusing political appointees of intervening in criminal and antitrust cases to serve the personal interests of President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr.

Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, a career prosecutor who worked on the Russia investigation, told the House Judiciary Committee that senior law enforcement officials intervened to seek a more lenient prison sentence for Mr. Trump’s longtime friend Roger J. Stone Jr. for political reasons. And John W. Elias, a senior career official in the antitrust division, charged that supervisors improperly used their powers to investigate the marijuana industry and a deal between California and four major automakers.

It was highly unusual for current officials to testify before Congress and criticize department leadership. Democrats say the hearing is part of a broader investigation into Mr. Barr’s leadership of the department — work that has taken on added relevance in recent days, after Mr. Trump agreed to fire the federal prosecutor in Manhattan who has led several investigations into his associates.

A department spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, pushed back on Mr. Zelinsky’s account, saying that Mr. Barr determined that the sentencing recommendation for Mr. Stone was “excessive and inconsistent with similar cases.” She added that Mr. Zelinsky’s testimony was “based on his own interpretation of events and hearsay (at best), not firsthand knowledge.”

Donald Ayer, who was deputy attorney general under President George Bush, and Michael Mukasey, who was attorney general under President George W. Bush, are also testifying.

The hearing played out in the wake of a surprise ruling on Wednesday morning by an appeals court panel that ordered the immediate dismissal of the case against Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser. Mr. Barr had ordered that case dropped last month even though Mr. Flynn had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about phone calls with the Russian ambassador — another move that critics of Mr. Barr have portrayed as favoritism to a presidential ally. (The ruling could still be appealed.)

Mr. Zelinsky was among four career prosecutors who withdrew in protest from the Stone case after political appointees at the Justice Department overrode their recommendation that Mr. Stone receive seven to nine years in prison, in line with standard sentencing guidelines.

Mr. Stone had been convicted of committing seven felonies to impede a congressional inquiry that threatened Mr. Trump. The day after prosecutors made their request, Mr. Trump attacked the request on Twitter as unjust. Later that day, the department submitted a new, more lenient recommendation to the judge deciding what punishment to impose.

Ms. Kupec said that Mr. Barr did not discuss intervening in the case with the president or anyone else at the White House.

Mr. Zelinsky said unidentified supervisors had openly discussed the intervention to shorten the recommendation as having been motivated by “political reasons” even though one supervisor agreed that doing so “was unethical and wrong.”

Days before the intervention, Mr. Barr had maneuvered the Senate-confirmed U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jessie K. Liu, out of her role and installed in her place as acting U.S. attorney a close aide from his own office, Timothy Shea.

Mr. Zelinsky said that he was told that Mr. Shea “was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice” and complied because he was “afraid of” Mr. Trump.

“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,” Mr. Zelinsky said. “But that wasn’t what happened here. Roger Stone was treated differently because of politics.”

Mr. Elias, the lawyer in the Justice Department’s antitrust division, said that he believed that the division’s investigations into the cannabis and auto industries were politically motivated, and that one was at Mr. Barr’s behest. He also said that he had asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to look into the matters.

“At the direction of Attorney General Barr, the antitrust division launched 10 full-scale reviews of merger activity taking place in the marijuana, or cannabis, industry” because the attorney general “did not like the nature of their underlying business,” Mr. Elias said in written testimony.

However, “personal dislike of the industry is not a valid basis upon which to ground an antitrust investigation,” he added during the hearing.

Mr. Elias also said that the department initiated a review of four major automakers the day after Mr. Trump said on Twitter that he was enraged by the news that the companies would adhere to higher fuel emissions standards than the federal government demands.

In Mr. Elias’s account, the cannabis company reviews consumed the antitrust division, making up nearly a third of all of its cases in the fiscal year that ended in September. He said that staff members objected to the numerous requests for information that the department sent to the marijuana companies, in large part because they were seen as harassing and overly burdensome.

Mr. Elias, who served as chief of staff to Makan Delrahim, the head of the antitrust division, said that during a meeting in September, Mr. Delrahim “acknowledged at an all-staff meeting that the cannabis industry is unpopular ‘on the fifth floor,’ a reference to Attorney General Barr’s offices.”

The department’s Office of Professional Responsibility had already investigated Mr. Elias’s concerns about the cannabis company merger reviews and determined that the division “acted reasonably and appropriately,” according to an email sent to the division and obtained by The New York Times.

The office also found that given the “unique challenge” that the nascent cannabis industry poses for federal and state regulators, the department reasonably sought out additional information from the industry.

Wednesday’s testimony is a linchpin in a broader attempt by House Democrats to scrutinize the Justice Department under Mr. Barr. The relationship between the two sides soured long ago, when Mr. Barr refused to comply with Judiciary Committee requests related to the special counsel’s Russia report, but in recent months, Democrats have looked on with increasing alarm as the attorney general has tried to undercut some of the report’s key findings and even prosecutions it spawned.

In addition to the hearing, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, has been trying to secure testimony from Geoffrey S. Berman, the New York prosecutor fired last week by Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr, who has overseen politically sensitive investigations into the president’s past and current lawyers.

In his opening remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Nadler included the firing of Mr. Berman among a series of actions by Mr. Barr that he said showed he had perverted the nation’s system of justice.

“The effort to remove Mr. Berman is part of a clear and dangerous pattern of conduct that began when Mr. Barr took office and continues to this day,” Mr. Nadler said. “Mr. Barr’s actions make clear that, in his Department of Justice, the president’s allies get special treatment, the president’s enemies — real and imagined — are targeted for extra scrutiny and the needs of the American people are generally ignored.”

Lawmakers will apparently have a chance to question the attorney general directly. Just after the hearing began, Ms. Kupec, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said on Twitter that Mr. Barr had accepted an invitation to testify voluntarily before the panel on July 28. Democrats had been threatening to issue a subpoena for his appearance.

Republicans, who share Mr. Barr’s views of the Flynn and Stone cases, mounted an aggressive defense on Wednesday, arguing that he was correcting injustices that they said were initiated by the Obama administration.

“The politics was in the previous administration,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top committee Republican. “Bill Barr is doing the Lord’s work trying to clean it up so that it doesn’t happen again.”

The hearing comes on the heels of a string of public missteps, internal chaos and leadership changes at the Justice Department.

Mr. Barr was roundly criticized for leading the federal response to protests in Washington of police killings and the decision to clear Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1, just before Mr. Trump’s widely condemned photo opportunity in front of a nearby church. Mr. Barr also contradicted Mr. Trump’s assertion that he sheltered in the building’s bunker only to inspect the premises.

The president also quickly backed away from the botched firing last week of Mr. Berman as the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, even though he was forced to approve the dismissal because of legal issues stemming from Mr. Berman’s unusual appointment by federal judges.

Inside the department, the head of the criminal division and the solicitor general recently announced long-planned departures. But Joseph H. Hunt, the chief of the civil division, suddenly resigned without informing Mr. Barr, leaving the division that defends the Trump administration in court without a leader.

Department employees have said that Mr. Barr has become increasingly aggravated and impatient, managing his staff with a heavier hand than before.

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