WASHINGTON — Two Justice Department officials are expected 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, plans to tell the House Judiciary Committee at a noon hearing 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, will charge that supervisors improperly used their powers to investigate the marijuana industry and a deal between California and four major automakers.
It is 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, will also testify.
A prosecutor will say that politics drove an intervention in the case of a Trump ally.
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.
In a prepared opening statement he submitted to the committee on Tuesday, 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 wrote that he was told that Mr. Shea “was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break” and complied because he was “afraid of the president.”
An antitrust lawyer will say that Mr. Barr himself sought a politically motivated investigation.
Mr. Elias, the lawyer in the Justice Department’s antitrust division, said in his prepared remarks 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 planned to say 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 his opening remarks.
However, “personal dislike of the industry is not a proper basis upon which to ground an antitrust investigation,” he said.
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.
He also said that 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 that the investigations were motivated by the fact that the cannabis industry is unpopular ‘on the fifth floor,’ a reference to Attorney General Barr’s offices.”
Democrats are threatening to subpoena Barr, too.
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 this week’s hearing, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, is 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. He may also move later this week to subpoena Mr. Barr himself to testify, though the attorney general would almost certainly resist.
Democrats have said they feel compelled to shine a light on perceived abuses at the department, but with a presidential election looming and the impeachment of Mr. Trump behind them, even they admit there are unlikely to be the kind of severe repercussions lawmakers once contemplated.
“He certainly deserves impeachment,” Mr. Nadler said of Mr. Barr on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But, again, that’s a waste of time, because the Republicans in the Senate won’t look at that, and we have other ways of getting at this.”
The hearing caps off a tumultuous month for the department.
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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