A US prosecutor has told Congress that Department of Justice (DOJ) officials inappropriately tried to reduce punishment for Trump aide Roger Stone.
Aaron Zelinsky testified that “political considerations” led top DOJ officials to seek a lesser sentence due to his relationship with the president.
A judge sentenced Stone to 40 months for lying to Congress after the DOJ lowered their recommended sentence.
It came after Mr Trump attacked the original sentence plea as an injustice.
All four prosecutors assigned to the Stone case – including Mr Zelinsky – quit after the lower sentence was requested.
Also on Wednesday, a federal court moved to allow the DOJ to drop charges against ex-national security advisor Michael Flynn, another Trump associate, who was convicted of lying to government investigators. It follows a request from the DOJ to drop the case and an attempt by Flynn to change his guilty plea.
Mr Zelinsky, an assistant US attorney in Maryland who previously worked on special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia meddling probe, told lawmakers on the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives Judiciary Committee that he felt “heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break”.
He said that he felt required to treat Stone “differently and more leniently” because of his “relationship with the president”.
DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Mr Zelinsky only serves as a “line prosecutor” and never discussed the Stone case directly with Attorney General William Barr, who leads the Justice Department.
“Mr Zelinksy’s allegations concerning the US Attorney’s motivation are based on his own interpretation of events and hearsay (at best), not first-hand knowledge,” she said in a statement.
After Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who is overseeing Wednesday’s hearing, threatened to compel Mr Barr to testify, the DOJ said he would speak to the committee voluntarily on 28 July.
What is the background?
Stone was found guilty in 2019 of lying to the House Intelligence Committee about his attempts to contact Wikileaks, the website that released damaging emails about Mr Trump’s 2016 Democratic election rival Hillary Clinton, as well as of obstruction and witness tampering.
Prosecutors, including Mr Zelinsky, asked a judge to jail him for at least seven years, but after Mr Trump took to Twitter to call the sentencing guideline “horrible and very unfair” and a “miscarriage of justice” Mr Barr stepped in and asked for a more lenient sentence.
Since then, Mr Trump has hinted at a possible pardon for his long-time confidant.
Stone is due to begin his sentence on 30 June, but on Sunday took to Facebook to say he would attempt “to delay the death sentence ordering me to a Covid-19 infested prison”.
What else did prosecutors say?
Mr Zelinsky told lawmakers that he was pressured to change a sentencing memo to the judge to ask for a lighter sentence for Stone. He said he was told he could be fired if he did not co-operate.
“Ultimately, we refused to modify our memorandum to ask for a substantially lower sentence,” he said.
“Again, I was told that the US Attorney’s instructions had nothing to do with Mr Stone, the facts of the case, the law, or Department policy.
“Instead, I was explicitly told that the motivation for changing the sentencing memo was political, and because the US Attorney was ‘afraid of the President’.”
Mr Zelinksy was joined at the hearing by John Elias, an official in the DOJ’s antitrust division, who said that Mr Barr directed his team to investigate a legal marijuana business in California because he “did not like the nature of their underlying business”, according to his prepared opening remarks.
He also said that he was directed to investigate an environmental deal made between US auto manufacturers and the state of California after Mr Trump criticised it on Twitter.
Donald Ayer, who served as deputy attorney general to President George Bush also spoke.
Mr Ayer and Mr Barr worked together in the DOJ in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Since then he has frequently criticised Mr Barr for his intervention in the Stone case, as well as the case of retired Gen Michael Flynn, who was Mr Trump’s first national security advisor.
Who is Michael Flynn?
Flynn left the White House after one month after acknowledging that he had misled Vice-President Mike Pence about his conversations with foreign officials.
He was later charged with lying to FBI investigators about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US.
But on Wednesday, a federal appeals court moved to drop the case against Mr Flynn, following a highly criticised request by the DOJ to dismiss the charges.
Who is Roger Stone?
Stone has worked with Republicans since the 1970s and has a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back.
In the 1990s, Stone worked as a lobbyist for Mr Trump’s casino business, and later helped Mr Trump’s unsuccessful White House run in 2000.
According to the Netflix documentary Get Me Roger Stone, the strategist reportedly encouraged Mr Trump to run for the presidency again in 2016.