Attorney General Barr said recently that he frequently intervenes in criminal cases of people unrelated to Donald Trump, in an attempt to normalize his protection of one of the president’s cronies. We have seen no evidence that this is true, so we’re investigating.
Barr’s intervention in Roger Stone’s criminal case was so outrageous that it caused several Department of Justice prosecutors to resign from the case in protest. CREW sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Justice for all records that would shed light on Barr’s claim that he has intervened in other criminal cases. If Barr really is taking such an active role in criminal cases, the public needs to know who else is being granted these extraordinary favors.
When Stone, a close confidant of President Trump, and an advisor to the 2016 Trump campaign, was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering in November, President Trump was furious. “So they now convict Roger Stone of lying and want to jail him for many years to come,” the President tweeted. The conviction, he continued, was “a double standard like never seen before in the history of our Country”. The President’s fury over the Stone case did not seem to abate as the months passed. As the case drew close to sentencing, the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia apparently began receiving “heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice” to “cut Stone a break.”
Despite this intense political pressure, the career line prosecutors who had investigated and litigated the case pushed forward with what they saw as an appropriate sentencing recommendation in line with the federal guidelines. Their February 10, 2020 sentencing memorandum described Stone as having perpetrated a “direct and brazen attack on the rule of law” that “took place over an extended period of time, and it was intentional, extensive, and brazen.”
In the early hours of the next day, President Trump flew into a rage, taking to Twitter to call the sentencing memorandum “horrible and very unfair” and a “miscarriage of justice.” Later that same day, February 11, 2020, the Department hurriedly filed an updated sentencing memorandum, recommending a far lighter sentence for Stone. None of the career prosecutors who had investigated and litigated the Stone trial signed the memorandum. A few hours later, all four prosecutors, including Assistant United States Attorney Aaron Zelinsky, resigned from the case in protest.
One June 24th, Zelinsky testified before the House Judiciary Committee in the capacity of a whistleblower. He explained that the entire sentencing process was undermined by political considerations. The US Attorney in charge of the office, Zelinsky testified, was receiving “heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break,” and the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing decisions (and his instructions to the line prosecutors) were “based on political considerations.” Zelinsky concluded that “Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the President.”
The very next day Attorney General William Barr explained in an interview with NPR that he was personally behind the decision to issue an updated sentencing memorandum. When NPR asked Attorney General Barr whether he had ever intervened in a case that didn’t involve the President’s friends in this manner, the Attorney General said, “there were a number of cases since I’ve been here that I’ve done that.” That admission suggests he personally intervened in criminal cases to change a sentencing recommendation issued by career prosecutors–an intervention that AUSA Zelinsky had testified was “virtually unprecedented.”
We are, of course, living in unprecedented times. However, that makes the integrity of our institutions even more critical. We must have confidence that the Attorney General is properly exercising his enormous power, and Barr’s intervention in the Stone case on behalf of the President explicitly undermines public confidence.
The events surrounding the Stone sentencing explicitly suggest that the Attorney General may be wielding this power unequally, to satisfy the furious orders of an unchecked President. If Barr is telling the truth, that he has intervened frequently in criminal cases, the public needs to know the extent of this behavior and the cases impacted. CREW’s investigation is an attempt to verify the attorney general’s claim. But for now, we have to wonder: How much is Barr tampering with “equal justice under law”?