A pair of Justice Department officials will testify under subpoena next week about allegations that the department has become politicized under Attorney General William P. Barr, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said Tuesday.
Also subpoenaed was John Elias, a career official in the Justice Department’s antitrust division. Last year, the division opened an inquiry into the fuel efficiency deal between the major automakers and California — a review that was politically motivated, Democrats charge.
A third witness, former Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer, who served under President George H.W. Bush, will testify about the need for Justice Department independence. Mr. Ayer, who worked with Mr. Barr at the Bush Justice Department, is a frequent critic of the attorney general.
“The committee welcomes the testimony of current and former Department officials who will speak to the lasting damage the President and the Attorney General have inflicted on the Department of Justice,” Mr. Nadler said in a statement.
“Two of the witnesses scheduled to testify, Aaron Zelinsky and John Elias, are dedicated public servants currently employed by the Department,” the statement continued. “Mr. Zelinsky can speak to the Department’s handling of the sentencing of Roger Stone and Mr. Elias can speak to improperly motivated activity by the Antitrust Division.”
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.
Democrats have subpoenaed the Justice Department officials, who they are promoting as “whistleblowers,” because Mr. Barr has dodged testifying himself. Mr. Nadler said their testimony is critical to the panel’s role in overseeing the Justice Department.
“The Attorney General — who cites his busy schedule as a basis for refusing to appear before the House Judiciary Committee but has made time for multiple television interviews — may have abdicated his responsibility to Congress, but the brave men and women of our civil service have not,” Mr. Nadler said.
It is not clear how much detail the two current Justice Department officials can provide. The department is part of the Executive Branch and the Trump administration has repeatedly invoked privilege to block officials from testifying before Congress.
The move could touch off a fight between the Justice Department and Congress about how much these officials can say.
Mr. Zelinsky had been a member of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team investigating allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign ahead of the 2016 election. He continued to handle the prosecution of Stone, a longtime ally of President Trump, which spun out of the Mueller probe.
In February, Mr. Zelinsky was part of the prosecution team that had recommended a stiff sentence of seven to nine years in prison for Stone, who was convicted of obstructing a congressional investigation, witness tampering and lying to Congress.
The recommendation drew attacks from Republicans and Mr. Trump, who blasted it as unfair. Mr. Barr ultimately stepped in and overruled the prosecutors’ recommendation, calling for a lighter sentence.
Ultimately, a federal judge sentenced Stone to more than three years in prison, but Mr. Barr’s actions set off a political firestorm in Washington.
Under the agreement, the automakers voluntarily agreed to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions, despite the Trump administration pushing to roll back federal standards.
The Justice Department dropped the probe earlier this year, but the legal scrutiny reportedly scared off Mercedes-Benz, which had considered joining the deal.
Mr. Ayer served at the Justice Department during Mr. Barr’s first tenure under Mr. Bush. At the time, Mr. Barr ran the department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 1989 and 1990 before succeeding Mr. Ayer as deputy attorney general and later becoming attorney general.
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