A career Justice Department attorney who led the prosecution of Roger Stone says he was “explicitly” told that actions were being taken in Stone’s case out of fear of President Trump.
Aaron Zelinsky, an assistant U.S. attorney who also served on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, made the claim in written testimony posted Tuesday, ahead of his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday.
Zelinsky’s written testimony focuses on the DOJ’s move to water down the original sentencing recommendation that he and other career prosecutors submitted in the case. Zelensky ultimately withdrew from the case “over the political influence in the case.”
Zelinksy says that he was told that there was “pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break,” according to the written remarks.
“I was explicitly told that the motivation for changing the sentencing memo was political, and because the U.S. Attorney was ‘afraid of the President,’” he writes.
Wednesday’s congressional testimony from Zelinsky — and another career DOJ official who is expected to testify about political influence on antitrust actions — will be the highest-profile examination yet of recent controversial DOJ moves under Attorney General Bill Barr.
In addition to the Stone case, the Justice Department has also made drastic changes to its course in Michael Flynn’s case, which it is now pushing to get dismissed.
Zelinsky’s opening remarks claim that the intervention in the Stone case was unlike anything he’d ever seen before at the Department of Justice.
He and his career prosecutors submitted their sentencing memo on Monday, Feb. 10, after they pushed back on initial attempts from the Department to weaken the recommendation, according to the testimony.
At first, when the line prosecutors on Feb. 5 first sent their supervisors their initial draft of the sentencing memo — which recommended Stone serve seven to nine years — their supervisor praised it and said that Stone “deserve[d] every day” they were recommending, according to the testimony.
Two days later, according to Zelinsky, the prosecution team came under pressure from the leadership in the U.S. Attorney’s office — which at the time was led by Timothy Shea, a Barr ally — to change the memo so that a lower sentencing guideline range would be presented to the judge.
Zelinsky’s team objected to these requests because they were “inappropriate” under DOJ policy and “unwarranted” in Stone’s case, Zelinsky says.
“In response, we were told by a supervisor that the U.S. Attorney had political reasons for his instructions, which our supervisor agreed was unethical and wrong,” Zelinksy says. “However, we were instructed that we should go along with the U.S. Attorney’s 10 instructions, because this case was ‘not the hill worth dying on’ and that we could ‘lose our jobs’ if we did not toe the line.”
Zelinsky’s team also received word that the office leadership wanted passages removed describing Stone’s conduct — another directive Zelinsky says was “inconsistent” with DOJ practice.
Zelinsky threatened to withdraw from the case “rather than sign a memo that was the result of wrongful political pressure,” he says, and ultimately his team got an okay to submit a version that included the original sentencing range calculations but removed the passages about Stone’s conduct.
Early the following morning, Trump tweeted angrily about the recommendation, and Zelinksy says he learned from media reports that Tuesday that the Justice Department was planning to claw back the recommendation.
At first the U.S. Attorney’s office told Zelinksy those reports were false, according to his testimony. But later Tuesday his team was informed that there would be a new memo seeking a “substantially” lower the recommended sentence for Stone.
Zelinksy’s request to see the new memo before it was filed was denied, he says.
“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,” he writes.
He and three of his colleagues withdrew from the case that Tuesday afternoon, and no line assistant U.S. attorneys were on the revised memo the DOJ filed, which Zelinksy says is “something that is virtually unprecedented.”
Zelinsky is appearing at Wednesday’s hearing under subpoena, and in his written remarks, he previewed how he’d handle any instances where the DOJ invoked certain privileges in his testimony.
“I intend to respect the invocation of these privileges in appropriate circumstances, but also recognize that, for example, the deliberative process privilege does not apply when testimony sheds light on government misconduct, or when the Government has disclosed deliberative information selectively and misleadingly,” he writes.
“The Department has cleared my submission of this written statement.”
Read the written testimony below: