US prosecutors to say politics drove DoJ cases linked to Trump

Two US prosecutors are set to testify on Wednesday that politics drove Department of Justice decisions in cases linked to Donald Trump.

The prepared testimony released on Tuesday includes a claim that a senior official at the justice department pushed for less jail time for Roger Stone, an ally of Mr Trump, because he was “afraid of the president”.

The claims also concern the antitrust division, where political leadership allegedly ordered an investigation of carmakers that had agreed emissions reductions with California just a day after Mr Trump had publicly criticised the companies.

The written testimony was released ahead of a House of Representatives judiciary committee hearing on Wednesday about the “improper politicisation” of the justice department under William Barr, the attorney-general, and Mr Trump.

It comes just days after a furore over Mr Barr’s sudden ousting of the Manhattan US attorney at the weekend. Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney, had overseen politically sensitive investigations of allies of the president.

The justice department did not immediately return a request for comment on the testimony.

Aaron Zelinsky, one of the prosecutors set to testify on Wednesday, helped secure the conviction at trial of Mr Stone for lying to Congress about his efforts to contact WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential election.

Earlier this year, Mr Barr intervened to reverse the initial sentencing recommendation filed by Mr Zelinsky and three colleagues. Mr Stone was ultimately sentenced to 40 months, less than the 87-108 months initially sought. 

Mr Zelinsky and two of the other prosecutors quit the case, while a fourth, Jonathan Kravis, resigned from the department entirely in protest.

In his written testimony, Mr Zelinsky said he saw the department “exerting significant pressure” on his team to “to water down and in some cases outright distort the events that transpired in [Mr Stone’s] trial and the criminal conduct that gave rise to his conviction”.

Mr Zelinsky said he was told that Timothy Shea, then acting US attorney for the District of Columbia office handling the case, “was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break”.

He also claimed he was also told by a supervisor that Mr Shea, a former aide to Mr Barr who is now acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, had pushed to reduce the sentencing recommendation for Mr Stone because he was “afraid of the president”.

The DEA did not immediately return a request for comment.

The second prosecutor, John Elias, works in the antitrust division and had previously been chief of staff to Makan Delrahim, the political appointee who heads the division.

Mr Elias said in his written testimony that on August 22, 2019, the political leadership of the antitrust division ordered an investigation of four carmakers — Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and BMW — just a day after Mr Trump tweeted about them.

The president had criticised the companies for agreeing emissions reductions with California that were stricter than rules his administration was attempting to push through at the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The memo opening the probe had no staff recommendation, stating instead that the division “would like to open an investigation”, and was generated by policy lawyers at the division, rather than enforcement attorneys as would be typical, Mr Elias said.

“Here, in its opening memorandum, staff acknowledged that it had not fully examined the public record,” Mr Elias said. When the investigation passed to enforcement staff, they “expressed concerns about the legal and factual basis” and asked to delay “going overt with the investigation”. 

“The investigation proceeded anyway, with AAG Delrahim personally writing the automakers to inform them that the division had decided to examine the arrangement with California,” Mr Elias said. The probe was ultimately closed in February with no action taken.

Mr Elias also alleged in his testimony that Mr Barr had ordered the division to review mergers in the cannabis industry because “he did not like the nature of their underlying business”, despite the view of staff attorneys that the deals posed no competition concerns.

One of the investigations involved a proposed deal between MedMen and PharmaCann, according to Mr Elias. He said staff had judged it lawful, but were ordered by Mr Barr to conduct an extensive review.

The antitrust division “negotiated subpoena compliance with the companies, obtaining 1.3 million documents from the files of 40 employees. The investigation confirmed that the markets at issue were ‘unconcentrated’ and closed in September 2019 without any enforcement action.”

Mr Elias added: “The merger collapsed nonetheless, with MedMen citing unexpected delays in obtaining regulatory approval.”

He said there were nine other investigations of cannabis deals driven by the political leadership at the antitrust division. Mr Elias said staff were ordered not to interview customers or competitors, as normal “in any bona fide antitrust investigation”, so as not to draw attention.

In fiscal year 2019, in-depth reviews of cannabis mergers accounted for 29 per cent of all such deep dives, he wrote.