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U.S. attorney general Barr blasted by Democrats as 'president's fixer'

U.S. House Democrats blasted Attorney General William Barr at a hearing on Wednesday over accusations he had improperly meddled in criminal cases and antitrust probes for political gain, but they stopped short of pledging to take any steps to try and oust the nation's top law enforcement official.

'Roger Stone was being treated differently from every other defendant,' witness alleges

Aaron Zelinsky, a career Justice Department prosecutor, appeared remotely on Wednesday and characterized some of the Justice Department's actions on the Roger Stone case as unprecedented. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

U.S. House Democrats blasted Attorney General William Barr at a congressional hearing on Wednesday over accusations he had improperly meddled in criminal cases and antitrust probes for political gain, but stopped short of pledging to take any steps to try to oust the nation's top law enforcement official.

The hearing featured testimony from two current Justice Department employees who took the unusual step of publicly blowing the whistle against their own employer.

Barr has come under growing scrutiny after he intervened in two prosecutions involving Trump allies Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, fired a federal prosecutor whose office is investigating Trump's personal attorney, and oversaw the use of force by federal law enforcement officers against peaceful protesters in historic Lafayette Square.

"Mr. Barr's work at the Department of Justice has nothing to do with correcting injustice. He is the president's fixer," said Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House's judiciary committee.

Federal prosecutor Aaron Zelinksy testified on Wednesday that the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington was pressured from the "highest levels" of the Justice Department to scale back its sentencing recommendation for Stone

"Roger Stone was being treated differently from every other defendant. He received breaks that are, in my experience, unheard of," said Zelinsky, who withdrew from the case after senior department officials filed a new sentencing memo that backed away from the original recommendation of seven to nine years in prison.

Stone, 67, who was convicted of obstruction, witness tampering and lying to Congress during its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Justice Department leadership changed the sentencing recommendation for Stone just hours after Trump tweeted his displeasure at the recommendation of up to nine years in prison, saying it had been too harsh. Stone was sentenced Feb. 20 to serve more than three years in prison plus two years' probation and a $20,000 fine.

Barr has said Trump's tweet played no role in the change. He said he ordered the new filing hours earlier because he was caught off guard by the initial sentencing recommendation and believed it was excessive based on the facts of the case.

Dismissed as hearsay

Zelinsky described having learned from the media that the Justice Department planned to overrule the trial team's sentencing recommendation, something he said he found unusual given the department's conventional practice of not commenting on cases.

Though the U.S. attorney's office initially said the reports were false, the team was later told that a new sentencing memorandum would be issued that would seek a lighter punishment for Stone.

"We repeatedly asked to see that new memorandum prior to its filing. Our request was denied," Zelinsky said. "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."

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia tries to make a point of order in the committee hearing on Wednesday on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Republicans on the panel criticized Zelinsky, who admitted he had not directly spoken with Barr or the then-acting U.S. Attorney Tim Shea about their reasons for scaling back the sentencing recommendation.

Zelinsky told lawmakers that Shea's office declined his request for a meeting, and that J.P. Cooney, who supervises public corruption cases in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, had told him that political motivations were behind the abrupt shift.

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohion and other Republicans dismissed the testimony as hearsay.

"It sounds like you heard stuff you are now bringing to this committee as fact," Jordan said.

Donald Ayer, the former deputy attorney general under George H.W. Bush who also testified before the committee Wednesday, said he feared Barr's misbehaviour was only accelerating as the election draws closer.

"William Barr poses the greatest threat in my lifetime to our rule of law and to public trust in it," said Ayer. "That is because he does not believe in its core principle — that no person is above the law."

Barr "whitewashed" the Mueller report with a preemptory news conference, Ayer contested, and pointed to the firing of several inspectors general in recent months in the administration as undermining justice.

With less than five months before U.S. elections, the partisanship displayed during the House judiciary hearing was on display, with bickering over rules of order. Multiple Republicans on the panel criticized Zelinsky for not appearing in person; the prosecutor said he is the father of a newborn and cited coronavirus concerns.

Nadler, the New York Democrat, had mulled subpoenaing Barr to appear before the panel for a future hearing, but a Justice Department spokeswoman on Wednesday tweeted that Barr would voluntarily appear to testify on July 28.

Barr would likely be asked about Stone, Flynn and the curious circumstances surrounding the recent departure of the federal prosecutor in New York.

The second employee to testify on Wednesday was antitrust attorney John Elias, who spoke about the about the politicization of antitrust probes into marijuana companies and the auto sector.

Elias detailed antitrust investigations that he says were started over the objections of career staff — a charge the department denies — and said he asked the department's inspector general to investigate them.

Read Zelinsky's opening statement:

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