A former prosecutor in special counsel Robert Mueller’s office has released his opening statement on the eve of scheduled testimony before the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee. Aaron Zelinsky, among others, is set to testify on Wednesday in a sort of whistleblower capacity about “improper politicization” of Attorney General Bill Barr’s DOJ.
Zelinsky and other line prosecutors famously quit the Roger Stone case after Barr’s subordinates intervened and overrode their sentencing recommendations. Stone is, of course, a longtime ally and advisor of President Donald Trump. Zelinsky argued at trial that Stone lied to congressional investigators in order to protect Trump. Zelinsky withdrew from the Stone case along with three others after the DOJ intervention back in February. Adam Jed, Michael J. Marando and Jonathan Kravis all left the case, and Kravis left the DOJ entirely.
Here’s are the top five takeaways from Zelinsky’s opening statement.
1. He says the Roger Stone case is the only case he’s ever seen political influence play a role in prosecutorial decision-making.
Zelinsky, numbering himself among “non-partisan career prosecutors” who see to it that “justice is done” without reference to party or politics, said that the decision-making process in the Roger Stone case was unlike any he had ever seen before:
In the many cases I have been privileged to work on in my career, I have never seen political influence play any role in prosecutorial decision making. With one exception: United States v. Roger Stone.
2. Zelinsky’s said that he was told Barr’s former top aide was “afraid” of Trump.
To hear Zelinsky tell it, Timothy Shea, the former Barr aide who was controversially installed at the head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District Columbia for a short period of time, was afraid of President Trump and acted accordingly:
What I saw was the Department of Justice exerting significant pressure on the line prosecutors in the case to obscure the correct Sentencing Guidelines calculation to which Roger Stone was subject – and to water down and in some cases outright distort the events that transpired in his trial and the criminal conduct that gave rise to his conviction. Such pressure resulted in the virtually unprecedented decision to override the original sentencing recommendation in his case and to file a new sentencing memorandum that included statements and assertions at odds with the record and contrary to Department of Justice policy.
What I heard – repeatedly – was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the President. I was told that the Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Timothy Shea, was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break, and that the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing instructions to us were based on political considerations. I was also told that the acting U.S. Attorney was giving Stone such unprecedentedly favorable treatment because he was “afraid of the President.”
That explanation was deeply unsettling. Together with my fellow line Assistant United States Attorneys, I immediately and repeatedly raised concerns, in writing and orally, that such political favoritism was wrong and contrary to legal ethics and Department policy.
3. Zelinsky: DOJ treated Roger Stone “differently and more leniently” in a manner that is perhaps entirely unprecedented.
To be clear, my concern is not with this sentencing outcome – and I am not here to criticize the sentence Judge Jackson imposed in the case or the reasoning that she used. It is about process and the fact that the Department of Justice treated Roger Stone differently and more leniently in ways that are virtually, if not entirely, unprecedented.
4. Zelinsky, for a second time, says Shea was afraid of the president; says DOJ decision-making was clearly wrong on multiple levels.
Zelinsky’s shared something he said to a D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office supervisor after Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison. Zelinsky’s quote said that the decision-making in the Stone case was, “at a minimum, unethical.” It also reiterated the belief that Timothy Shea was afraid of Trump:
When the sentence was announced, a supervisor from the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office forwarded me a copy of the sentencing transcript, noting that “things are raw. But I hope you know that I am grateful for you and your colleagues work. It may be cold to say, but congratulations – you achieved a remarkable result. Please be sure to read Judge Jackson’s imposition of sentence in its entirely; it is a tribute to your work.” I responded, “Thanks for the message. I continue to believe, as I previously expressed to you, that changing a sentencing recommendation based on political considerations and the fact that the U.S attorney was ‘afraid of the President’ (in your words) was wrong, contrary to DOJ policy, and unethical, at a minimum.
5. In “damning” fashion, Zelinsky dishes on DOJ interference in the Stone sentencing recommendations before and after infamous Trump tweet.
Zelinsky recounted the chronological order of relevant events. According to this account, Zelinsky told higher-ups in the D.C. office that he would resign rather than sign the more lenient Stone memo.
Pretty damning stuff from Aaron Zelinsky, who plans to tell the House tomorrow that political meddling in the Stone case preceded Trump's infamous tweet. https://t.co/JrxFnpA68H pic.twitter.com/1rHygaZLMO
— Matt Ford (@fordm) June 23, 2020
After getting the go-ahead to file the would-be overridden memo, Trump tweeted that the recommendations were a “miscarriage of justice!”
Here’s what Zelinsky said happened next:
On Monday, February 10, 2020, after these conversations, I informed leadership at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. that I would withdraw from the case rather than sign a memo that was the result of wrongful political pressure. I was told that the acting U.S. Attorney was considering our recommendation and that no final decision had been made.
At 7:30PM Monday night, we were informed that we had received approval to file our sentencing memo with a recommendation for a Guidelines sentence, but with the language describing Stone’s conduct removed. We filed the memorandum immediately that evening.
At 2:48 AM the following morning, the President tweeted that the recommendation we had filed was “horrible and very unfair.” He stated that, “the real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them.” President Trump closed, “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”
The next morning, media reports began to circulate quoting a “senior Department of Justice official” stating that the Department would file a new sentencing memorandum overriding our old one. This was highly unusual, as the Department generally does not comment on pending filings in criminal cases. The first we heard of any new memorandum was from public media reports. When we asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office about these media reports, we were initially told they were false. But later that day, we were told that a new memorandum would be filed, countermanding our earlier recommendation and asking for a substantially lower sentence for Mr. Stone.
We repeatedly asked to see that new memorandum prior to its filing. Our request was denied. We were not informed about the content or substance of the proposed filing, or even who was writing it. We were told that one potential draft of the filing attacked us personally. Concerned over the political influence in the case – and the explicit statements that the reasons for these actions were political, and that the U.S. Attorney was acting because he was “afraid of the President” – I withdrew. My three colleagues did the same. That evening, the Department filed a new memorandum seeking a substantially lower sentence for Stone. No line AUSA signed the filing—which is also something that is virtually unprecedented.
After widespread backlash to the above back in February, Barr did a sit-down interview with ABC News , during which he called the Stone prosecution a “righteous” one.
“Well, as you know, the Stone case was prosecuted while I was attorney general. And I supported it. I think it was established, he was convicted of obstructing Congress and witness tampering. And I thought that was a righteous prosecution. And I was happy that he was convicted,” Barr said.
He also said that the president’s tweets were making his job impossible.
“I think it’s time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases,” Barr continued. “I’m not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody … whether it’s Congress, a newspaper editorial board, or the president. I’m gonna do what I think is right. And you know … I cannot do my job here at the department with a constant background commentary that undercuts me.”
[Image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]
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