On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony from two Department of Justice attorneys who said that improper political influence had warped multiple cases, including the sentencing recommendation for President Donald Trump’s associate Roger Stone.
These insider accounts of political abuse by Attorney General William Barr confirmed what thousands of former DOJ employees suspected when they recently signed onto letters calling for Barr’s removal. The testimony detailed how federal prosecutors were pressured to change tactics and recommendations based on the president’s tweets and political pressure from the administration.
As damning as this testimony is, however, it was quickly overshadowed by the fact that the Judiciary Committee is a clown show. Republicans on the committee immediately sought to derail proceedings by turning to familiar tactics. Democratic leadership on the committee, as exemplified by Chairman Jerrold Nadler, consistently allows committee Republicans to wreck proceedings any time the committee attempts to address Barr’s efforts to put Trump and his allies above the law. The theatrics have become so predictable they may as well be scripted.
As per usual, the interruptions of Nadler’s opening statement with extraneous parliamentary motions began immediately. Within minutes, Republicans professed outrage that one whistleblower would be testifying remotely and complained that Nadler was breaking the rules.
This was directly followed by a rant by ranking minority member Rep. Jim Jordan, claiming the Obama administration was guilty of identical behavior, citing several baseless conspiracy theories that may be unfamiliar to anyone who doesn’t watch 12 hours of Fox News per day.
While pushing Fox News talking points is standard practice for Republicans on the committee, what came next was a new and shocking stunt. As Donald Ayer, who served as deputy attorney general under the first Bush administration, was testifying, Rep. Louie Gohmert attempted to drown him out by banging on his desk. Gohmert justified his stunt with an argument that will inspire 3-year-olds everywhere: “There’s no rules about when you can make noise.”
As Gohmert continued his banging over Ayers’ efforts to read his opening statement, Democratic members asked that leadership call the sergeant-at-arms to expel him. In exasperation, Rep. Steve Cohen asked Nadler to “have Gene Krupa removed.”
As during impeachment and in other past hearings, Nadler appeared to have no control over this circus. Gohmert was allowed to stay and to continue his interruptions unabated.
There’s good reason Republicans resorted to drowning out the testimony of the witnesses before them. When the department attorneys were eventually allowed to speak, they described exactly how Barr and Trump have compromised the Justice Department.
John W. Elias, a trial attorney in the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, was able to testify as a whistleblower that Barr personally ordered the division to proceed with investigations of cannabis industry mergers despite there being no basis in law for the investigations. Elias also testified that there was no basis in fact, or even groundwork done, for an antitrust investigation of auto manufacturers that was launched one day after Trump tweeted his anger at the manufacturers for agreeing with California to a deal lowering fuel emissions.
Even more damning was the testimony of Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, who told the committee that his superiors in the Department of Justice ordered Roger Stone’s sentence recommendation be reduced because former acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Timothy Shea “was giving Stone a break because he was afraid of the president of the United States.”
Zelinsky then laid out in clear fashion how career prosecutors were “pressured to reduce the initial sentencing guideline calculation for Mr. Stone without any clear legal rationale for doing so.”
When we refused to go along, we were instructed instead to disregard the guidelines entirely and to recommend an unspecified lower sentence for Mr. Stone. I was told that to the best of anyone’s recollection, such a recommendation has never been made by the Fraud and Public Corruption section of the United States attorney’s office. When we again refused, we were told that we could be fired if we didn’t go along. I notified the office that I intended to withdraw from the case rather than file a memo that was the result of wrongful political pressure. And while all this was happening, I was repeatedly told the department’s actions were not based on the law or the facts, but rather on political considerations, Mr. Stone’s political relationships, and that the acting U.S. attorney was afraid of the president. Shortly after I informed the office of my intent to withdraw, office leadership changed its position and allowed us to file a sentencing memorandum properly calculating the guidelines and seeking a guidelines sentence.
After the correct sentence recommendation went out, though, the president tweeted that the sentence was unfair, the department crafted a new memo asking for a lower sentencing recommendation, and Zelinsky left his assignment in the unit and his role on the case.
“I resigned because following orders would have violated the oath I swore when I took my job,” he said.
Stone had been convicted for lying to Congress about his efforts to secure information from WikiLeaks that had been hacked as part of Russia’s effort in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s campaign and of witness tampering in an effort to protect Trump from political embarrassment. During that trial, a jury heard testimony that Stone had personally informed the president about these efforts to secure that information from WikiLeaks. As Rep. Cedric Richmond noted during his questioning, Trump—under penalty of perjury—told special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that he had no recollection of any such conversations with Stone.
As Richmond put it succinctly, “Roger Stone got special treatment because he was covering up the president’s misconduct and the attorney general made it possible.”
In the recent past, Judiciary Committee efforts to reveal such abuses of power have been completely overshadowed by the GOP’s stunts and gamesmanship. On Wednesday while this hearing was happening, the DOJ announced that Barr would finally testify before the committee next month after more than a year of evasion. If that testimony goes ahead, we’ll know shortly whether this committee is ever going to be capable of bringing Barr to account for his alleged misconduct.