'Afraid of the president': Damning testimony from DOJ official reveals pressure to give Roger Stone special treatment
Assistant United States Attorney Aaron Zelinsky detailed a corrupt and unethical pressure campaign to give Roger Stone, a friend and ally of President Donald Trump, special treatment after he was found guilty of federal crimes.
The Justice Department official said in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, a written version of which was published Tuesday, that he has never seen political influence in any other case.
He said he did not see what was happening at the top of the Justice Department, but he witnessed the effects of the corruption.
"My understanding of what happened in United States v. Stone is based on two things," Zelinksy wrote. "The first is what I saw with my own eyes: the unusual and unprecedented way that Roger Stone’s sentencing was handled by the Department of Justice. The second is what was told to me at the time by my supervisors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office: why the Department was treating Roger Stone differently from everyone else."
What I saw was the Department of Justice exerting significant pressure on the line prosecutors in the case to obscure the correct Sentencing Guidelines calculation to which Roger Stone was subject – and to water down and in some cases outright distort the events that transpired in his trial and the criminal conduct that gave rise to his conviction. Such pressure resulted in the virtually unprecedented decision to override the original sentencing recommendation in his case and to file a new sentencing memorandum that included statements and assertions at odds with the record and contrary to Department of Justice policy.
What I heard – repeatedly – was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the President. I was told that the Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Timothy Shea, was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break, and that the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing instructions to us were based on political considerations. I was also told that the acting U.S. Attorney was giving Stone such unprecedentedly favorable treatment because he was “afraid of the President.”
Stone was found guilty on multiple charges that included obstruction, lying to Congress, and intimidating a witness.
One important fact to recognize here is that it's precisely the dynamic Zelinsky described that motivated the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who initially brought the charges against Stone and other allies of the president, in the first place. The position of the special counsel is supposed to insulate politically sensitive cases from leadership pressure. But Mueller resigned before his cases were completed — a move that now appears to have been a serious mistake.
Zelinksy said the improper pressure he witnessed was "deeply unsettling."
"Together with my fellow line Assistant United States Attorneys, I immediately and repeatedly raised concerns, in writing and orally, that such political favoritism was wrong and contrary to legal ethics and Department policy," he wrote. "Our objections were not heeded."
He resigned his position at the U.S. attorney's office in D.C. after the dispute over the sentencing in the Stone case, returning to the office in Maryland.
Later in the testimony, Zelinksy explained how his work was interfered with after the team on the Stone case calculated the sentencing recommendation based on the department's guidelines. He said he was told to deviate from the proper calculation, a departure from official policy.
"[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," he explained. "However, we were instructed that we should go along with the U.S. Attorney’s 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."
He noted that, when the Justice Department leadership eventually overruled the team's sentencing memo, its argument echoed the president's explicit concerns:
Ultimately, the memo argued, Stone deserved at least some time in jail– though it did not give an indication of what was reasonable. All the memo said was that a Guidelines sentence was “excessive and unwarranted,” matching the President’s tweet from that morning calling our recommendation “horrible and very unfair.”
"It pains me to describe these events," he concluded. "But as Judge Jackson said in this case, the truth still matters. And so I am here today to tell you the truth."