The House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Wednesday from a federal prosecutor and another witness who have accused Attorney General William P. Barr and his top deputies of acting “based on political considerations” and a desire to appease President Trump.

Aaron Zelinsky, an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland formerly detailed to the Russia investigation by special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III, told the panel that prosecutors involved in the criminal trial of Trump’s friend Roger Stone experienced “heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice” to give Stone “a break” by requesting a lighter sentence.

Zelinsky was joined by John Elias, an official in the Justice Department’s antitrust division, who said Barr ordered staff to investigate marijuana company mergers simply because of his “personal dislike” of the nature of their underlying business.

Also appearing before the panel were former U.S. attorney general Michael B. Mukasey and former deputy attorney general Donald Ayer, who has publicly called on Barr to step down.

In his testimony, Ayer said Barr “poses the greatest threat in my lifetime to our rule of law,” while Mukasey dismissed allegations that the Justice Department has become politicized under Barr.

Meanwhile, Barr has accepted an invitation from the panel’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), to appear for a “general oversight hearing” on July 28, Barr’s spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec, said in a tweet Wednesday. According to a Judiciary Committee spokesman, the Justice Department contacted the panel on Tuesday regarding a date for Barr’s testimony to avoid a subpoena for the attorney general.

June 24, 2020 at 4:51 PM EDT
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As hearing concludes, Ayer says current crisis is ‘much worse’ than Watergate

By Felicia Sonmez

The hearing ended more than four hours after it began, with the Democratic-called witnesses repeating their warnings about the crisis of confidence facing the Department of Justice.

“It’s very important that we recognize what’s happening now,” Ayer said. “What’s happening now is much worse than what happened in Watergate — much worse. It’s across-the-board. It’s a systematic effort to undo the checks that were put in place in Watergate and others that existed in the Constitution. And we need to do something about it."

Republicans, meanwhile, continued to take aim at the three Democratic witnesses, accusing them of lacking credibility and of being politically motivated in their criticism of Barr and Trump.

At one point, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) bristled when Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) chastised him for not wearing a face mask during part of the hearing.

“The unmasking this committee should be concerned about is the unmasking that took place at the end of the Obama administration,” Jordan responded.

June 24, 2020 at 4:04 PM EDT
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Democratic congresswoman gets GOP witness to concede that ‘maybe’ Trump acted politically to help friends

By Colby Itkowitz

Under forceful questioning by Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), former attorney general Michael Mukasey conceded that President Trump “maybe” used politics to sway sentencing decisions and help his friends.

Demings, who is on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s shortlist of potential running mates, asked: “Do you believe that the president nor the attorney general — who has been acting more like the president’s personal bodyguard and his fixer — have not engaged in politics as it pertains to the president’s friends?”

Mukasey responded: “I can’t speak for the president. The president is, by definition, a political — ” he said, before Demings cut him off to repeat her question.

“Based on your professional — political or professional — experience, do you believe the president has engaged in a political way as it pertains to sentences or what happens to his friends?” Demings asked more assertively.

“The attorney general himself criticized the president for tweets that he —” Mukasey began.

“So that's a yes?” Demmings asked.

“It’s a maybe,” Mukasey said.

June 24, 2020 at 3:48 PM EDT
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Ayer voices alarm about Barr ‘echoing’ Trump’s baseless claims about voter fraud

By Felicia Sonmez

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) pressed Donald Ayer about his concerns over Attorney General William P. Barr’s recent statements about the supposed dangers of voting by mail. On Fox News Channel last weekend, for instance, Barr claimed without evidence that expanded voting by mail would open “the floodgates of potential fraud.”

“Right now, a foreign country could print up tens of thousands of counterfeit ballots, and [it would] be very hard for us to detect which was the right and which was the wrong ballot,” Barr said during the Fox interview.

Ayer said Wednesday that he thinks Barr’s remarks were inappropriate, particularly “because it appears to be something that there’s absolutely no truth in at all.”

“It’s just disreputable, and it’s entirely inappropriate,” Ayer said. “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, which is something he does more and more. And frankly, my worry is that he’s going to do it more and more in the weeks and months ahead as we get closer to the election.”

Barr, Ayer added, is “acting as an advocate for whatever fantasies the president wants to advance.”

June 24, 2020 at 3:29 PM EDT
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Zelinsky on Justice Department’s handling of Stone case: ‘What happened here was wrong'

By Colby Itkowitz

Aaron Zelinsky told the House Judiciary Committee that he and other assistant U.S. attorneys were disappointed at how the Roger Stone case was handled, calling it “wrong.”

“We took an oath to do our job, to follow the law, to follow the department’s policies and to do what’s right,” he said. “And what happened here was wrong.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), after praising Zelinsky and comparing his testimony to that of administration officials who agreed to speak out during the impeachment hearings against the president, asked Zelinsky why he ultimately withdrew himself from the Stone case and left the D.C. office entirely.

“I did that because what had happened was wrong,” Zelinsky said. “And I did not want to be a part of what had happened.”

June 24, 2020 at 3:12 PM EDT
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Zelinsky names supervisors who told him Stone sentencing decision was political

By Karoun Demirjian

Aaron Zelinsky never spoke directly to Attorney General William P. Barr, his deputy Jeffrey Rosen, or acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia Timothy Shea about Roger Stone’s changed sentencing request, although he testified that he tried to and was denied.

Instead, Zelinsky said his information about the decision having been made for political purposes came from his supervisors — and on Wednesday, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) got him to name them.

Zelinsky said he reported to J.P. Cooney, the Justice Department’s head of fraud and public corruption, and his former deputy, Alessio Evangelista, while seconded to the Stone case. Jordan took note of the names. It is not immediately clear whether or how he plans to follow up with them.

Zelinsky said that it was “my understanding” that his supervisors had spoken to top Justice Department officials responsible for the sentencing decision in the Stone case. Jordan jeered his understanding as not being good enough.

“It sounds like you don’t know much,” he said. “It sounds like you heard stuff that you are now bringing to this committee as fact.”

“This is as bad as the old impeachment,” Jordan opined, likening Zelinsky to the whistleblower who filed a complaint about President Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky based on secondhand information. “It seems just as bad, just as lame as what we went through a few months back.”

June 24, 2020 at 3:09 PM EDT
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Mukasey defends integrity of lawyer leading probe into origins of Russia investigation

By Colby Itkowitz

Michael Mukasey defended John Durham, who is leading a Justice Department probe into the origins of the Russia investigation, when asked by a Republican congressman whether he was concerned there was an effort by Democrats to derail that work.

Mukasey agreed that the congressional oversight proceedings “could have the effect of tainting the attorney general and through him, John Durham, but John Durham has been at this for a long time. He had the faith of three attorneys general, at least: Janet Reno, me, my successor and Attorney General Barr. That’s four.”

That response prompted terse pushback from Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).

“Mr. Mukasey, I respect you, but these proceedings are consistent with the U.S. Constitution,” Jeffries said. “The House is a separate and coequal branch of government. We don’t work for Donald Trump or any other president. We work for the American people. We have a constitutional responsibility to serve as a check and balance on an out of control executive branch. The attorney general and the Department of Justice, under his leadership, is out of control.”

June 24, 2020 at 2:23 PM EDT
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Rep. Johnson presses Zelinsky on why he didn’t appear in person

By Matt Zapotosky

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) questioned Zelinsky on why — unlike the other three witnesses — he was not appearing in person, prompting Nadler to testily interrupt that the witness was fulfilling his obligation.

Under questioning from Johnson, Zelinsky conceded that he was appearing on video just a half-mile away from the Capitol, at his attorney’s Washington office. He said he felt he had to do so because he had a newborn at home.

Johnson noted that cross-examining witnesses in person is “obviously much more effective and reliable,” prompting Nadler to interrupt and note that Zelinsky was “complying with the rules of the House.”

Johnson noted that other witnesses were taking risks during the pandemic to appear in person, including Mukasey, who had flown in from New York and had a grandchild who had some type of health condition.

Johnson then sought to press Zelinsky on the special counsel investigation — about which the GOP has a bevy of concerns — but Zelinsky declined to answer, saying the Justice Department had instructed him not to discuss those matters.

June 24, 2020 at 2:21 PM EDT
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Elias says antitrust investigation was driven by Trump tweets, ‘did not appear to be in good faith’

By Felicia Sonmez

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) questioned Elias about the now-abandoned inquiry into a pact between the state of California and several automakers — a deal the president attacked on Twitter last summer.

The investigation, Johnson argued, appeared to have been driven by Trump’s tweets threatening that the four automakers would “be out of business” if they did not get in line.

“And so, the president tweets out threats, and then the next day, the automakers get hit with an antitrust investigation. That’s what happened, isn’t it?” Johnson asked. Elias responded affirmatively, noting “there was very little time between those two events.”

“The career staff who examined it saw some very obvious defenses … and you really have to twist things to get around those,” Elias said, adding that the investigation “did not appear to be in good faith.”

June 24, 2020 at 2:13 PM EDT
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Collins rips anti-Barr witness for trying to work for House Democrats last year

By Karoun Demirjian

Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), who served as ranking member of the Judiciary Committee until he launched a Senate campaign earlier this year, accused Elias of bias against Barr and Trump, pointing out that Elias had tried to get a job working for the panel’s staff last year.

Elias acknowledged he had “preliminary conversations” with Nadler’s staff in early 2019. When Collins suggested he had applied to work on impeachment, not just antitrust policy, Elias said he “may have also asked for oversight at one point.”

“You asked to come to this committee … you wanted to come work for this committee during the impeachment of Donald Trump,” Collins said.

He then accused Elias of overinterpreting Barr’s approach to marijuana cases as politically charged, pointing to an Office of Professional Responsibility report that found it was “reasonable” to ask for reviews of such companies. He then asked Elias whether marijuana was a Schedule I drug. Elias said he did not know which schedule marijuana was on.

“You were a part of an antitrust in marijuana and didn’t know how it was scheduled?” Collins said. “Mr. Elias, the credibility is going down here.”

(Despite widespread legalization in states, federally speaking, marijuana is still a Schedule I drug.)

June 24, 2020 at 1:40 PM EDT
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Mukasey says Barr supports 'evenhanded application of law’

By Felicia Sonmez

Mukasey, who was U.S. attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, defended Barr on Wednesday against accusations of political interference, describing Trump’s attorney general as “an experienced lawyer and leader.”

“The Justice Department is not politicized because senior officials disagreed with the sentencing recommendation for Mr. Stone,” Mukasey said, reprising some of the arguments he made in a Wall Street Journal op-ed he co-wrote in February with former attorney general Edwin Meese III defending Barr.

Mukasey said that “there seems to be a tendency these days to read ulterior motives into every action of Attorney General Barr,” but that those concerns were unwarranted.

“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,” Mukasey said of Barr.

June 24, 2020 at 1:22 PM EDT
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Zelinsky says leniency for Stone was because of his ‘relationship to the president'

By Matt Zapotosky

In perhaps the most remarkable testimony of the day, Zelinsky testified about how he was pressured to offer a more lenient sentencing recommendation for Trump associate Roger Stone, and the reason was political.

“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,” Zelinsky testified.

Zelinsky testified that he and his fellow career prosecutors resisted efforts to reduce their sentencing recommendation and were told “we could be fired if we didn’t go along.” He said he was not given a good legal reason for offering a lighter recommendation.

“What I heard repeatedly was that this leniency was happening because of Stone's relationship to the president, that 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,” Zelinsky said.

Zelinsky conceded he did not have firsthand knowledge of discussions among political leadership. He said he and his colleagues were initially allowed to file the recommendation they wanted, only to have the Justice Department later reverse course after Trump tweeted his anger over the matter.

“It pains me to describe these events, but Judge [Amy Berman] Jackson said in this case, the truth still matters. And so I am here today to tell you the truth,” he said.

June 24, 2020 at 1:19 PM EDT
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Tapping and screaming: Partisan chaos emerges early

By Karoun Demirjian

The partisan tensions that have frequently bubbled over during House Judiciary Committee hearings came to an early head Wednesday as Republican members picked fights with Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) over whether the witnesses were obeying the rules.

First, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) argued that Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Zelinsky was defying his subpoena by appearing via screen and not in person. A chorus of yelling ensued as other Republican members piled on, screaming at Nadler that there were rules about such things.

Then, when former deputy attorney general Donald Ayer spoke for longer than his allotted five-minute time, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) began loudly tapping on his desk in protest.

And tapping. And tapping. In a steady allegro vivace. Ayer tried to talk over him, but eventually lawmakers on the panel started yelling at one another again. When Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) suggested that Nadler might call the sergeant at arms to forcibly remove Gohmert for the interruption, things only escalated.

“You want somebody removed because they want the rules enforced?” Gohmert said. “That’s amazing.”

“The members will show courtesy to the witnesses, Mr. Gohmert,” Nadler retorted.

June 24, 2020 at 1:08 PM EDT
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Antitrust division prosecutor talks of Barr personally ordering investigation of marijuana-company merger

By Matt Zapotosky

John Elias described in his opening statement how Attorney General William P. Barr personally ordered the investigation of a merger between marijuana companies, even after career lawyers determined that was not necessary. Elias said he told the Justice Department inspector general about 10 investigations of marijuana-industry mergers that seemed frivolous to career staffers.

“Personal dislike of an industry is not a valid basis upon which to ground an antitrust investigation,” Elias said.

Elias also described how the antitrust division was ordered to investigate deals between the state of California and four automakers to limit emissions standards — a day after President Trump tweeted his displeasure about the arrangement. He said he was testifying because “I recognize the imperative for law enforcers to operate evenhandedly and in good faith” and he felt U.S. antitrust laws were being “misused.”

June 24, 2020 at 12:57 PM EDT
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Jordan defends Barr’s stewardship of Justice Department as ‘correcting injustice’

By Karoun Demirjian

The ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), objected vehemently to the premise of Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s hearing, arguing that Attorney General William P. Barr and President Trump are “not political, they’re just right.”

Jordan said it was particularly ironic to accuse Barr of politicization on the same day that a federal appeals court ruled that a judge could not prolong the Justice Department’s case against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, after Barr ordered it dismissed. Flynn pleaded guilty twice to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Russia’s then-ambassador to the United States and was awaiting sentencing when the department dismissed the charges in May.

“The Barr Justice Department is about correcting injustice,” Jordan said. “They’re not political, they’re just right, and we saw that with the decision today.”

“You guys can continue to play your political games,” the congressman said. “Bill Barr’s going to get to the truth.”