WASHINGTON ― Justice Department attorneys on Wednesday offered damning testimony about Attorney General William Barr’s alleged political interference in the department’s work involving President Donald Trump’s allies and Barr’s own ideological interests.
Aaron Zelinsky, who served as a prosecutor on the special counsel team led by Robert Mueller and was later detailed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia as he worked on the case against former Trump associate Roger Stone, told members of the House Judiciary Committee that it was clear there was political interference in Stone’s sentencing process.
John Elias, a prosecutor in the antitrust division of the Justice Department, testified that Barr directed baseless antitrust investigations into the cannabis industry because of his personal dislike for the rising marijuana market.
Donald Ayer, who preceded Barr as deputy attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration, testified that Barr “grossly misused his powers as attorney general to advance the president’s personal and political interests, and to protect his friends.” He told the lawmakers that Barr had given reason for the public to “distrust everything he says” and called Barr “the greatest threat in my lifetime to our rule of law.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, called Barr “the president’s fixer” and said Barr “has shown us that there is one set of rules for the president’s friends and another set of rules for the rest of us.”
Nadler called the Department of Justice witnesses brave for agreeing to testify before the committee.
“This administration has a record of witness intimidation, and I have no doubt that they will try to exact a price for your testimony,” Nadler said. “But you are patriots, and you have done your duty here today.”
The rare testimony from current career Justice Department employees, who typically don’t appear before Congress, capped off a rough period for Barr, who Democrats say has given legal cover to some of Trump’s worst and more corrupt impulses. Just last week, Barr ousted a top federal prosecutor who had investigated or prosecuted several Trump associates.
But it’s unclear what House Democrats can do to hold Barr accountable. There’s been talk of impeaching the attorney general, but such action would be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate, just as Trump’s impeachment was earlier this year.
Barr, a Justice Department spokesperson said Wednesday, had agreed to testify at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on July 28. It would be the first time for Barr, who was confirmed in early 2019, to appear before the panel. Last May, Barr bailed out on a House Judiciary Committee hearing at the last minute because the committee planned to allow staff members to question him.
Democrats also used Wednesday’s the hearing to criticize Barr’s involvement in the violent clearing of anti-racism protesters from Lafayette Square ahead of a Trump photo-op in front of a church near the White House and his oversight of the militarized law enforcement response to demonstrations in the District of Columbia, which involved an alphabet soup of federal agents, many of whom went unidentified.
Elias revealed Wednesday that the DOJ inspector general and the Office of Special Counsel were investigating allegations about improper antitrust probes of cannabis companies. But the Justice Department claimed there was nothing to the issue, and Politico reported Wednesday on the memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility that cleared the Justice Department’s work. OPR has come under heavy scrutiny in the past for lax punishment of prosecutorial misconduct, and the current head of OPR, Jeffrey Ragsdale, was named to the position just last month by Barr, to whom he now reports.
A Justice Department spokesperson called Zelinsky’s testimony “hearsay (at best)” because it is based on what Zelinsky heard from his supervisors. She said Barr “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.”