- The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday held an oversight hearing on Attorney General William Barr’s decisions as head of the Justice Department.
- The hearing quickly devolved into chaos as Democrats and Republicans engaged in a screaming match before questioning even began and continued sniping at each other throughout the proceedings.
- The committee heard testimony from two DOJ officials: Aaron Zelinsky, a federal prosecutor at the US attorney’s office in Baltimore, and John Elias, a senior official in the department’s antitrust division.
- Zelinsky testified that DOJ leaders improperly intervened in the case against the former Republican strategist Roger Stone at Barr’s direction because they were “afraid of the president.”
- The committee also heard testimony from two former DOJ officials: former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer.
- Scroll down to watch the hearing and read Business Insider’s coverage of key moments.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday held an oversight hearing focusing on Attorney General William Barr’s decisions as head of the Department of Justice.
As part of the proceedings, the committee heard testimony from two DOJ officials: Aaron Zelinsky, a federal prosecutor at the US attorney’s office in Baltimore, and John Elias, a senior official in the department’s antitrust division.
Zelinsky worked on the special counsel Robert Mueller’s team during the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the US election, and he testified Wednesday that senior DOJ officials improperly interfered in the sentencing recommendation for the former longtime Republican strategist Roger Stone.
Specifically, he told lawmakers that DOJ leaders sought a weaker sentence for Stone at Barr’s direction because they were “afraid of the president.”
Elias testified that Barr weaponised the antitrust division to harass marijuana companies because he doesn’t like the cannabis industry.
The committee also heard testimony from two former DOJ officials: former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer. Mukasey was invited to testify by Republicans on the panel.
Watch the hearing below:
John Elias and Aaron Zelinsky explain why they chose to testify about abuse of power at the DOJ while serving under Barr
The witnesses who appeared on Wednesday were asked at one point why they chose to testify. Here’s how Elias and Zelinsky, both of whom are still serving at the Justice Department under Barr, responded:
Elias: “I looked at what was happening, which was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and it didn’t feel like a good faith calling of balls and strikes that I had been used to seeing. And I care very much about the antitrust laws, their evenhanded enforcement, protecting consumers, and also the institution of the antitrust division where I have spent my entire legal career. And when I saw these abuses, I thought that the public should get to know about them. So that’s why I stepped forward.”
Zelinsky: “Because I took an oath to do so.”
Democratic lawmaker rips Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan for not wearing a mask. Jordan responds that the real controversy is the ‘unmasking that took place at the end of the Obama administration.’
At one point, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell excoriated Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan for not wearing a mask during the hearing.
“Let me just remind every member of this committee, and people that are walking into this room, that the guidelines have been set forth by the office of the attendee physician and the house speaker that members need to be wearing masks,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “And the chairman stated earlier, very clearly, that members will not be recognised if they are not wearing masks.”
She then addressed Jordan, saying it was “incredibly disrespectful that you have been sitting here next to the chairman without wearing a mask. You are putting other peoples’ lives and their families in danger.”
Jordan replied by saying that “the unmasking this committee should be concerned about is the unmasking that took place at the end of the Obama administration.”
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell rips Jim Jordan for wearing no mask. "I find it incredibly disrespectful that you have been sitting here next to the chairman without wearing a mask. You're putting other people's lives and their families in danger." (Nadler's wife has cancer.) pic.twitter.com/XsnOkXDhNK
— Michael McAuliff (@mmcauliff) June 24, 2020
Mucarsel-Powell was referring to congressional guidelines that say House members should be wearing masks at all times to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, which the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic in March.
Jordan was referring to “unmasking,” which is a routine and legal process that the US intelligence community engages in on a regular basis. Republican lawmakers allege that the Obama administration improperly and illegally “unmasked” former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s name in intelligence reports monitoring the communications of then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
But a Washington Post report earlier this year blew up that allegation when it reported that Flynn’s name was never “masked” in the first place.
Former Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer skewers Trump and Barr’s conspiracy theories about voting by mail
Rep. Jamie Raskin, one of the most outspoken Democrats on the committee, asked former Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer about Barr’s unfounded claim that foreign countries would meddle in the 2020 election by mass-producing counterfeit ballots.
Barr has “provided an echo for the president, who has voted himself by mail in New York and in Florida and whose party encourages its members to go out and vote by mail – but he’s echoed the president in saying there’s something wrong with voting by mail, and he’s alleged that voting by mail makes us vulnerable to foreign influence by counterfeit ballots,” Raskin said to Ayer. “Is that an appropriate role for the attorney general of the United States?”
Ayer said: “I think it’s not, and especially it’s not because it appears to be something that there’s absolutely no truth in at all. There are five states that do nothing but vote by mail, and every other state, I think virtually every other state, uses vote by mail somewhat substantially.
“So the idea that we’re going to throw cold water on the notion that we’re going to vote by mail is just disreputable. And it’s entirely inappropriate. It really isn’t his job anyway. If there were some law-enforcement function, there it might be. But basically he’s just echoing the president.”
Indeed, Business Insider’s Grace Panetta reported there were three main reasons that Barr and Trump’s theory that foreign countries would produce fake ballots on a massive scale is implausible:
- Election administration in the US is highly decentralized, meaning there’s no single ballot a foreign country could mass-produce and send to US voters.
- Every state and municipality has its own unique ballot design and series of codes used to track the ballot. That means election officials would likely be easily able to spot a counterfeit ballot.
- Even if a hostile foreign power were able to create a fake ballot, it would also have to find a large enough database of registered voters and their addresses and forge individual signatures for every ballot.
Elias, a senior antitrust official, testifies that ‘dozens’ of department employees and attorneys were called in to work on ‘sham’ investigations that Barr wanted
Elias told the committee in his opening remarks that the DOJ, under Barr’s stewardship, abused its antitrust power to investigate 10 proposed mergers and acquisitions in the marijuana industry because Barr “did not like the nature of their underlying business.”
He testified that after antitrust staff expressed concerns about being used as a tool to harass firms, the head of the division convened a staff meeting and “acknowledged that the investigations were motivated by the fact that the cannabis industry is unpopular ‘on the fifth floor,’ a reference to Attorney General Barr’s offices in the DOJ headquarters building.”
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal asked Elias to elaborate on his allegations and asked why he considered the 10 investigations to be “sham” probes that were “predicated on the personal interests of the attorney general and the president, rather than the facts or a desire to protect American consumers.”
Elias told Jayapal that “dozens” of staff attorneys, paralegals, economists, and others worked on the cases. He said the first of the 10 companies produced millions of documents from the files of 40 employees at the DOJ’s request.
“That was just from the first of the 10 mergers,” Elias said.
“And when the DOJ received these documents, is there any evidence that the entirety of these documents were even reviewed?” Jayapal asked.
“I think a very small number of the documents were reviewed,” he said.
In one of the reviews, Elias added, the documents were uploaded near the end of the investigation, “as if they were irrelevant to the investigation and its process.”
“So to be clear, at Attorney General Barr’s direction, the department expends countless taxpayer resources to force companies to ultimately produce millions of pages of evidence, and then doesn’t even look at or upload some of that evidence before admitting there’s no violation,” Jayapal said.
She added: “Now, Mr. Elias, given your experience in public service, have you ever seen anything this extreme? Using taxpayer dollars to conduct an investigation over the course of months, on an entire industry, and not even uploading evidence before admitting that there’s no violation?”
Elias replied: “In my experience, which includes 14 years at the Justice Department at many different levels of the antitrust division, no, I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Zelinsky says he withdrew from Roger Stone’s case because ‘what had happened was wrong, and I did not want to be a part of what had happened’
California Rep. Eric Swalwell began his questioning by commending Zelinsky for testifying about allegations of misconduct at the highest levels of the DOJ while still serving at the law-enforcement agency under Barr.
Swalwell asked Zelinsky what prompted him to withdraw as counsel for the government in Stone’s case after senior leadership publicly overruled him and other prosecutors to seek a lesser sentence for Stone.
Zelinsky responded that he withdrew because “what had happened was wrong, and I did not want to be a part of what had happened.”
Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz laments that Confederate monuments are being ‘desecrated,’ and US history is being ‘erased’ by people who are ‘ashamed’ of the country
When Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz had the floor, he used his time to attack Democrats for running a “failed impeachment” against Trump.
“Roger Stone should be pardoned, I believe Roger Stone will be pardoned, and then this proceeding will look even more ridiculous than it does today,” the Florida congressman said before going on an extended rant against former President Barack Obama and what he called the former commander in chief’s “allies in the deep state.”
They believed “smears and coup attempts” would bring Trump down, Gaetz said, parroting the president’s unfounded allegations against his predecessor.
“And as we sit here today, America’s cities are burning, our monuments are being desecrated, our history is being presumably erased by people who are ashamed of the United States of America,” Gaetz said.
(Fact check: The vast majority of monuments Gaetz was referring to are those honouring Confederate soldiers and generals. The Confederacy actively fought against the US during the Civil War because Southern states wanted to preserve slavery.)
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan accuses Democratic witness of testifying without having firsthand knowledge of certain events, even though Republicans’ witness also has no firsthand information
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee and one of Trump’s biggest attack dogs on Capitol Hill, used his time to ask Zelinsky whether he met with senior DOJ officials or the acting US attorney in Washington, DC, about the Stone sentencing controversy before withdrawing from the case and agreeing to testify.
Zelinsky said he had sought multiple meetings but none had been granted.
Jordan asked Zelinsky which officials, specifically, told him that the acting US attorney in Washington was under “pressure” from “the highest levels” of the DOJ to weaken Stone’s sentence, and Zelinsky named several officials, including a first assistant, a criminal chief, and a case supervisor.
“It sounds like you don’t know much,” Jordan said. “It sounds like you just heard stuff that you’re now bringing to this committee as fact.”
The Ohio congressman added, “This is as bad as the whole impeachment, the anonymous whistleblower who had no firsthand knowledge, biased against the president, and who worked for Joe Biden.
“Now we have a so-called whistleblower with no firsthand knowledge, who didn’t talk to any of the people who make the decision, and who’s obviously biased against the attorney general. It seems just as bad, just as lame as what we went through just a few months back.”
(Fact check: The whistleblower who catalyzed Trump’s impeachment did not work for Biden but is a CIA official detailed to the Trump White House. The person’s allegations were later corroborated by over a dozen witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the events underlying Trump’s impeachment. Meanwhile, Mukasey, who Republicans called as a witness to defend Barr, also has no firsthand knowledge of the events being discussed, made that clear during his opening statement, and received no pushback from Jordan.)
Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert uses his speaking time to hurl conspiracy theories and wax nostalgic about his marriage, then says it’s a ‘shame we don’t have a serious hearing’
When Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas was up for questioning, he used his time to go on a lengthy rant against the witnesses (particularly Ayer), hurl personal accusations at them, and wax nostalgic about his marriage.
Here’s a full rundown of Gohmert’s remarks:
Gohmert: “This is incredible. Mr. Ayer, you called Jeff Jensen, a 20-year career prosecutor, a political crony. By the way, you care to say into the microphone what you mouthed at me earlier when you’d gone over two minutes past your time?”
Ayer: “I didn’t mouth anything at you, congressman.”
Gohmert: “Well, you just showed your lack of credibility both with Thornburgh and people that have followed has real basis in fact. And in fact, rarely have we had anybody with the chip you have on your shoulder come before us. Thornburgh said he believed that you were really never around. He said that Bill Barr, and I’m quoting, ‘was the first deputy I had and that came when I was two years into the job.'”
The Texas congressman went on to imply that Ayer was “resentful” over his strife with former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in the early 1990s, when Ayer served directly under him as deputy attorney general. Ayer abruptly resigned in May 1990 amid heightened tensions over Thornburgh’s leadership of the DOJ. Barr succeeded Ayer as deputy attorney general after Ayer left his position.
Gohmert then quoted Thornburgh’s book on the matter, which said, “Ayer’s resignation was announced on May 11, Bill Barr succeeded him and proved to be the deputy I had needed from the beginning.”
Gohmert said, “So I can understand why you’d be resentful 30 years later, but at some point, hopefully, Mr. Ayer will get over his chip.”
He added that he had planned to question Zelinsky and then went on a tangent about his marriage.
“I understand family matters, and by the way I’m grateful to my wife for sticking with me for 42 years today, and there are family matters, yes,” Gohmert said. “She’s a lot more fair than we’re getting around here. So 42 years. Thank you, Kathy.”
Later, Gohmert attacked the three witnesses called by Democratic lawmakers and said they did not express concerns when the Justice Department under Obama cracked down on local law enforcement after it determined that authorities had violated peoples’ civil rights.
“And AG Barr had that same concern, that peoples’ civil rights were being violated by governors or local authorities, and if he had no right to say anything, then the Justice Department under Obama had no right to pursue local law enforcement either,” Gohmert said. “But I guess it just, again, testifies to the credibility, or the lack thereof, of the people that have been brought before us.”
The Texas Republican then used some time to hurl conspiracy theories about the Russia probe, saying, inaccurately, that the Obama Justice Department, FBI, intelligence officials, and Pentagon masterminded an elaborate plot to “prevent a Republican from becoming president.”
“It’s a shame we don’t have a serious hearing,” Gohmert said after using nearly all of his speaking time to air his grievances instead of questioning witnesses. “It’s just a sideshow, and it ought to be called for what it is.”
Zelinsky: Stone ‘received breaks that are, in my experience, unheard of’
Zelinsky began his opening remarks by highlighting his nonpartisan nature as an assistant US attorney.
“The first thing that every AUSA learns is that we treat every defendant equally and fairly. In the United States of America, we do not prosecute people based on politics, and we don’t cut them a break based on politics either,” Zelinsky said.
He added: “But that wasn’t what happened here. Roger Stone was treated differently because of politics.
“He received breaks that are, in my experience, unheard of, and all the more so for a defendant in his circumstances. A defendant who lied to Congress, who remained unrepentant, and who made threats against a judge in his case. And what I heard repeatedly was that this leniency was happening because of Stone’s relationship to the president.”
Zelinsky told lawmakers that a supervisor on the case told him that there were “political reasons” to seek a more lenient sentence for Stone, even though the supervisor acknowledged that doing so “was unethical and wrong.”
Zelinsky testified that senior Justice Department leaders ignored concerns that he and other prosecutors on the case raised both in writing and in conversations. Their “objections were not heeded,” Zelinsky said.
The career prosecutor told Congress that the acting US attorney in Washington, Timothy Shea, who is a close ally of Barr, was under “heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break.”
Shea complied with Barr’s command because he was “afraid of the president,” Zelinsky said. He added that officials told him and other prosecutors on the case this was “not the hill worth dying on” and that they may be fired if they didn’t comply with Barr’s directive.
Mukasey defends Barr but says he has no firsthand knowledge of Barr’s actions
Mukasey, the former attorney general who was invited by Republicans to testify, defended Barr’s leadership of the DOJ, though he said he had no firsthand knowledge of Barr’s actions.
“I have no doubt that the welfare of this country upheld through the evenhanded application of law so as to achieve justice is what motivates him and motivates his decisions, and that’s all that motivates his decisions,” Mukasey testified.
He referenced a Wednesday morning decision by the US Circuit Court of Appeals to order a federal judge to dismiss the DOJ’s case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Mukasey joined Trump and other Republicans in supporting the decision and criticised the FBI, saying it did not follow proper protocol when agents first interviewed Flynn in January 2017.
The former national security adviser pleaded guilty to lying to the bureau in that interview, but Flynn’s legal team later reversed course and sought to retract his guilty plea, alleging prosecutorial misconduct and entrapment by the FBI.
Republican lawmaker disrupts Ayer’s opening remarks and defends his actions by saying there are ‘no rules about when you can make noise’
While Ayer was speaking, Gohmert began tapping on his desk to disrupt Ayer’s opening remarks because he had gone over his time limit. When Democratic lawmakers asked Gohmert to stop, he responded, “There’s no rules about when you can make noise.”
Nadler replied that he would enforce the five-minute rule for opening statements, but Gohmert pushed back, “Mr. Chairman, this is outrageous. Do you have no respect for the rules whatsoever?
“He’s two minutes beyond concluding, and you don’t let us have that kind of time. You gavel down immediately. You’re being grossly unfair. This man has a written statement, and he knew to cut it to five minutes; he couldn’t do it. Either we have rules or we don’t.”
“The gentleman will suspend. The witness will continue,” Nadler said.
“Then we can keep making noise,” Gohmert responded and began rapping his desk again.
Rep. Louie Gohmert is tapping on his desk to disrupt the House Judiciary Hearing testimony. Very mature stuff here pic.twitter.com/uyFK0nUe2J
— Tyler Buchanan (@Tylerjoelb) June 24, 2020
The hearing briefly devolved into chaos as Gohmert and Republicans continued interrupting Ayer’s testimony, and Democrats said that it was fairly routine for opening statements to go over their allotted time limit.
Ayer: ‘Barr is using a criminal investigation to produce fodder for the president’s campaign propaganda mill’
Ayer is an outspoken critic of Barr and didn’t mince words when he made his opening remarks, alleging the attorney general flouted the rule of law and inappropriately meddled in criminal investigations to help Trump.
“I am here because I believe that William Barr poses the greatest threat in my lifetime to our rule of law and to public trust in it,” Ayer testified.
He added that the attorney general “is using a criminal investigation to produce fodder for the president’s campaign propaganda mill” by accusing the FBI of “spying” on Trump’s 2016 campaign and repeatedly intervening in cases related to the Russia probe to have them overturned or to seek lesser sentences for defendants who are allies of the president.
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