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In ‘extremely unusual’ hearing, 2 DOJ lawyers allege politicization of justice

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing Wednesday on whether the federal agency tasked with enforcing the law is in fact breaking it. Two current Justice Department attorneys charged that department leaders -- including Attorney General William Barr -- ordered certain investigations and undermined others due to political motivations. Lisa Desjardins reports and talks to NPR’s Carrie Johnson.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In Washington today, the House Judiciary Committee heard new allegations of abuse from within the Justice Department. That came from the very top.

    Lisa Desjardins has the story.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    On Capitol Hill, a hearing on whether the agency which enforces the law is itself breaking it.

    Two current Justice Department attorneys charged that DOJ leaders, including Attorney General William Barr, ordered some investigations and tried to weaken others for political reasons.

  • Aaron Zelinsky:

    Roger Stone was treated differently because of politics.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Including pushing for a more lenient sentence for Roger Stone, a close ally of President Trump's.

    Aaron Zelinsky, the lead DOJ prosecutor in that case, said he was told to back off a tougher sentence recommendation for Stone. He ultimately quit over the handling.

  • Aaron Zelinsky:

    The acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice, and that his instructions to us were based on political considerations.

    And I was told that the acting U.S. attorney was giving Stone a break because he was afraid of the president of the United States.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    For Stone, Zelinsky had recommended seven to nine years. Ultimately, a judge disagreed, sentencing Stone to three years in prison.

    Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served under former President George W. Bush, said the DOJ and Barr operated with integrity.

  • Fmr. Attorney General Michael Mukasey:

    The Justice Department is not politicized because senior officials disagreed with the sentencing recommendations for Mr. Stone.

    Prosecutors are supposed to seek justice, not to play the sentencing guidelines like some sort of pinball machine to see how many times they can ring the bell.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The hearing also comes just days after Barr and Mr. Trump ousted Geoffrey Berman, the top prosecutor in Manhattan.

    Judiciary's Democratic chairman, Jerry Nadler of New York, said that's part of a clear and dangerous pattern.

  • Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.:

    Mr. Barr's actions make clear that, in his Department of Justice, the president's allies get special treatment. The president's enemies, real and imagined, are targeted for extra scrutiny.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Also alleging misuse of power today, John Elias, a lawyer in DOJ's antitrust office. He said Barr forced unusual and unwarranted reviews of marijuana companies.

  • John Elias:

    In response to staff concerns about these investigations, the head of the Antitrust Division, Assistant Attorney General Delrahim, acknowledged at an all-staff meeting that the cannabis industry is — quote — "unpopular on the fifth floor" — unquote — referring to A.G. Barr's offices at DOJ headquarters.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Republicans on the committee pushed back, defending Barr as fixing previous problems of anti-conservative bias.

  • Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio:

    He's cleaning up the mess of the previous administration and restoring integrity and honor to the DOJ and the FBI.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio:

    I mean, they're not political. They're just right.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Amidst it all, bubbling tensions, with Republicans objecting to how Nadler ran the hearing, a preview of a bigger hearing yet to come.

    Attorney General Barr is expected to testify at the end of next month.

    For more on today's hearing and the dismissal of criminal charges against Michael Flynn, I'm joined by Carrie Johnson, justice correspondent for NPR.

    Carrie, let's just start with the hearing. We heard these attorneys allege that Barr used DOJ's power for political reasons. How unusual is testimony like this?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    It is extremely unusual for prosecutors at this level in the Justice Department to be testifying at all, let alone when some of these matters are still ongoing, Lisa.

    In the last 20 years, I feel like it's happened only one time. So it was remarkable on that basis alone. But the substance of their testimony was also pretty startling to people who have covered the Justice Department and worked there for many years too.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This came the same day, of course, as a federal appeals court ruled with Barr and DOJ to drop charges in the Michael Flynn case.

    Conservatives say that ruling proves their point about DOJ bias, but what do you think? Is this a unique case, or is there something more to say about that ruling regarding Michael Flynn today?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Well, the Trump administration, both the White House and the Justice Department, called it a significant victory.

    Nothing about this case has been normal from the beginning. It started, of course, with the outgoing administration and FBI interviewing the new president's incoming national security adviser in the White House itself.

    Remember, Michael Flynn pleaded guilty twice to making false statements. But when he got a new lawyer, he reconsidered, wanted to reopen the case. And these new brass over at the Justice Department, led by Bill Barr, sided with Michael Flynn, citing legal deficiencies in the case.

    The federal judge who was hearing that case had some concerns about it. And Mike Flynn appealed to the higher court. Now the higher court has actually sided with Michael Flynn, and basically ordered the lower court judge to take that case and throw it out for good.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I want to ask a bigger question here.

    We essentially through all of this, Carrie, have both political parties accusing different parts of the Justice Department of having political bias. What is your sense of what's happening in the agency? Is there a chance that people are becoming more political in this political time?

    Or is that just something politicians are saying?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Well, depending on a change in administration, parts of the Justice Department often change, right?

    Different administrations have priorities about civil rights and environment and other matters. But the kinds of issues that have been cropping up of late, with the dismissal of the U.S. attorney Geoffrey Berman in New York over the weekend, and the pattern of reinvestigating cases initially investigated and charged by the special counsel Robert Mueller, does seem to be unusual.

    And we are seeing not just sitting prosecutors going to Congress and testifying, but a lot of former prosecutors signing letters.

    That said, Bill Barr very much has in his corner the former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who testified on his behalf today and said, the Justice Department is fortunate to have Bill Barr at the helm.

    I think morale inside the building is pretty rough right now. And I don't know whether we're going to see more departures in advance of the election. We have seen some of the appointees from President Trump announce they're leaving in the coming days and weeks.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Briefly, I wanted to ask about the election. That came up at the hearing. Of course, DOJ has very key responsibilities in overseeing and protecting the election.

    What has Barr said so far about what he's going to do? And what has he said about some people raising concerns that he may be biased in this election?

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Barr is basically outraged at the way the Obama administration handled the Mike Flynn investigation and a set of surveillance issues in 2016.

    And earlier this year, the attorney general, Bill Barr, basically said, in order to open an investigation at the FBI that concerns election-related issues or figures, you need the approval of the attorney general, Bill Barr.

    So we're getting to that time in the year where we're close to the political conventions and ultimately the election. And Bill Barr has positioned himself as the decider about opening investigations.

    We're going to see, I think in the next six weeks or so, whether any politically sensitive matters do get charged. If they don't get charged by then, I expect to see any of that action happen either after the election or never.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Carrie Johnson of NPR, thank you so much.

  • Carrie Johnson:

    Thank you.

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