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5 takeaways from the scathing testimony about William Barr’s Justice Department

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/25/2020 Aaron Blake
a man and a woman looking at the camera: President Trump, left, speaks to Attorney General William P. Barr in May 2019. (Bloomberg) © Bloomberg/Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomber President Trump, left, speaks to Attorney General William P. Barr in May 2019. (Bloomberg)

The Justice Department under Attorney General William P. Barr has made several controversial and extraordinary decisions with regard to President Trump and his allies. And two of those decisions came to a head Wednesday.

First came a federal court ruling that the case against Michael Flynn should be dropped after Barr’s Justice Department moved to withdraw its prosecution — despite Flynn already having pleaded guilty. Arguably the more interesting development came Wednesday afternoon, when a former prosecutor on the Roger Stone case testified that political pressure was indeed behind the Justice Department’s reduction in Stone’s sentencing recommendation.

Aaron Zelinsky was one of four prosecutors who withdrew from the case when that decision was made, and in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, he detailed what happened.

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Zelinsky’s testimony came after the committee on Tuesday released a blistering opening statement he had written. You can read up on that here.

Below are some takeaways from his and others’ testimony.

1. Zelinsky names names

In his opening statement and his early testimony, Zelinsky didn’t name the official who told him that the Stone decision was politicized. Instead, Zelinsky just said it was a “supervisor.” And for some reason, House Democrats didn’t probe this for nearly two hours.

So it fell to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to ask Zelinsky who it was. But Jordan may not have gotten the answer he anticipated.

“So the supervisor for the questions you’re asking is the supervisor of the fraud and public corruption” unit in the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office, Zelinsky said, adding, “His name is J.P. Cooney.”

Zelinsky said in his opening statement that this supervisor had said “that the U.S. attorney had political reasons for his instructions, which our supervisor agreed was unethical and wrong.”

Zelinsky also added that other officials were party to the discussions.

“At the time in the office, there was a first assistant, there was a criminal chief — they were all involved in these discussions,” Zelinsky said. He later named the first assistant as Alessio Evangelista.

Jordan asked whether these officials had spoken with Barr, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen or then-U.S. Attorney Timothy Shea.

Zelinsky responded, “My understanding is they did.”

Jordan, apparently taken aback, then pressed Zelinsky on the apparently secondhand nature of these exchanges. “It sounds like you heard stuff that you’re now bringing to this committee as fact,” Jordan said. “'So-and-so says to someone what they told someone else.'”

Regardless, to the extent the committee wants to pursue the matter, they apparently know whom to call next.

2. Zelinsky says DOJ abandoned the rule of law

Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Tex.) at one point asked Zelinsky whether Barr had abandoned the rule of law. She cited another withdrawn prosecutor from the Stone case, Jonathan Kravis, who wrote a Washington Post op-ed last month saying of his 10-year tenure in the DOJ, “I left a job I loved because I believed the department had abandoned its responsibility to do justice in one of my cases, United States v. Roger Stone.”

Garcia asked Zelinsky whether he agreed with that statement, and Zelinsky was direct.

“I do.”

The other two prosecutors who withdrew from the Stone case, Adam Jed and Michael Marando, haven’t been as public about their reasons for withdrawing.

3. GOP witness says ‘maybe’ Trump politicized allies’ cases

Whatever one thinks of Barr’s actions, even he has admitted that Trump’s tweets about ongoing Justice Department matters involving allies are problematic. Barr in February said that such tweets about the Stone case “make it impossible for me to do my job.” (He has declined to weigh in publicly since then, even as Trump has continued the practice.)

And the one GOP witness Wednesday, former attorney general Michael Mukasey, seemed to agree with that, at least in part.

Under questioning from Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who is under consideration for Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick, Mukasey acknowledged that “maybe” such tweets constituted applying political pressure in an ongoing case.

“I can’t speak for the president. The president is, by definition, a political — ” he said, before Demings cut him off.

“Based on your professional — political or professional — experience, do you believe the president has engaged in a political way as it pertains to sentences or what happens to his friends?” Demings asked.

“The attorney general himself criticized the president for tweets —, ” Mukasey said.

“So that's a yes?” Demings asked.

“It’s a maybe,” Mukasey said.

4. GOP’s dodgy attacks on the witnesses’ credibility

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 24: John Elias, a career official in the Justice Department's antitrust division, testifies before the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing on oversight of the Justice Department and a probe into the politicization of the department under Attorney General William Barr on Capitol Hill, June 24, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images) © 2020 Getty Images WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 24: John Elias, a career official in the Justice Department's antitrust division, testifies before the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing on oversight of the Justice Department and a probe into the politicization of the department under Attorney General William Barr on Capitol Hill, June 24, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images) Jordan and the GOP tried to undermine Zelinsky and his fellow witnesses’ credibility from the get-go, but again they may not have gotten what they bargained for.

Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), for instance, accused Justice Department attorney John Elias of trying to help Democrats with impeaching Trump.

“You wanted to come work for the majority during the impeachment. Is that not correct?” Collins asked.

Elias, though, indicated that his outreach to the Democratic majority on the committee came long before impeachment.

“I actually think that — I think it was a year prior,” he said, adding, “It was early 2019.”

Separately, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) picked up on the GOP’s argument that Zelinsky’s appearance via video was out of bounds or intended to avoid intense cross-examination.

“As a prosecutor … I’m reticent to discuss my family publicly,” Zelinsky responded.

Johnson, though, pressed him: “You have family concerns, is that right? Is that right? That’s what you tell us.”

Zelinsky responded, “I have a newborn child, congressman.”

Johnson then tried to compare this Mukasey, who appeared in person, saying Mukasey would quarantine himself after the hearing because he has a young grandchild.

5. A Barr predecessor: ‘We’re on the way to something far worse than Watergate’ 

Former deputy attorney general Donald Ayer preceded Barr in that role in the George H.W. Bush administration, and he has since been one of Barr’s most high-profile critics. He began his testimony Wednesday with some particularly stinging remarks.

“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,” Ayer said. “That is because he does not believe in its core principle that no person is above the law. Instead, since taking office, he has worked to advance his lifelong conviction that the president should hold virtually autocratic powers.”

He added later, “I think we’re on the way to something far worse than Watergate, where you had a problem of public distrust, because it’s becoming very transparent that many things are being done essentially for reasons that are completely unrelated to the merits of the case.”

Ayer has previously signed letters decrying Barr’s leadership of the Justice Department and has called for Barr’s resignation.

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