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Former Deputy Attorney General Talks About His Testimony On The Politicization Of DOJ


Two longtime Justice Department employees testified before Congress today that the attorney general, Bill Barr, is politicizing law enforcement. They said political appointees are intervening in cases to serve the personal interests of Barr and President Trump. The House Judiciary Committee also heard testimony today from two former Justice officials, and one of them joins us now. Donald Ayer was the department's second-in-command under President George H.W. Bush.


DONALD AYER: Hi. Thank you. Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: It's unusual for career employees to testify before Congress while they're still working for the Justice Department. The committee chairman, Jerry Nadler, described them as whistleblowers. What did you think as you watched these two officials, Aaron Zelinsky and John Elias, testify?

AYER: Well, I was very impressed. I - it takes a lot of guts to take your career and put it on the line like that. And both of them, I think, made a decision of conscience to step forward and tell the world about things that the world needed to hear. And so I have nothing but the greatest admiration. And I thought the story they both told were - both those stories were quite impressive. In fact, there was a third story, two of them from John Elias, two different cases. So it was quite an afternoon.

SHAPIRO: Now, their central argument is that the attorney general, Bill Barr, and other political appointees have intervened in cases to help the president's friends and allies. One of those cases is former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. The Justice Department dropped that prosecution. And today, an appeals court judge upheld that move. Does that ruling undermine the argument that you and others are making?

AYER: Well, I don't think the story's over on that. I haven't heard the latest. I just came out of this hearing. But I think the - to be honest, I think the ruling today by - it's actually a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals. And it was a 2-to-1 decision applying something called mandamus, which is an incredibly rarely used doctrine. I think it's crazy, frankly, the decision. And I think if the judge decides to seek review by the full court, I predict that the court will reverse. So I don't think it's over at all.

SHAPIRO: All right.

AYER: And I hope it's not 'cause I think the judge would be right to have a hearing on this.

SHAPIRO: Now, you gave Congress a long list of ways that you believe the attorney general has transgressed the proper role of an AG, from supporting the use of force against peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square to ousting the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who was investigating Trump allies. Because we don't have enough time to go item by item through the list...

AYER: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...When you put them all together, all of these different actions, can you just summarize what you see?

AYER: Yeah. Well, there's this - I'd say there's two different categories, and one comes on the heels of the first. The first is that Bill Barr - and I've known him about 40 years. Bill Barr has long been dedicated to the proposition, and I've never known why. But he really does genuinely in his heart believe that the president should be, effectively, an autocrat. He ought to essentially not be limited by the range of checks and balances that are governing our system. It sounds hard to believe that, but that's the case. And he has acted in many, many ways in order to implement that. And he's had a lot more success in the 16 months he's been there than he deserves.

That's the first thing and very disturbing in its own right. The second big thing is that, really beginning the middle of last year but accelerating greatly early this year and in the spring here, he has really signed on as a campaign advocate for the president. And the worst of it is he's brought the tools of the Justice Department to bear. So, you know, ordering troops around in Lafayette Square, ordering, you know, quasi-military law enforcement action in order to let the president go do a photo op at Lafayette Park to - effectively for his campaign is one example of that. You know, essentially firing a U.S. attorney so he won't proceed with investigations - Mr. Berman in New York - is another example of that.

And the worst one of all in my mind is that Bill Barr has become a regular spokesman on Fox News and in other media outlets, relying quite improperly on alleged facts from his own investigation, asserting the claim, this Obamagate theory, that, you know, that the president essentially was conspired against. This is a campaign narrative. It's a bunch of garbage, but it's a campaign narrative that they're promoting. And Bill Barr is using the Justice Department and his own investigation to support it. So...

SHAPIRO: You know, just - in our last minute, I mean, I want to point out that one of the other witnesses, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, defended Barr, saying he has no doubt that the attorney general is motivated by the even-handed application of the law. You have both known Barr for years. Why do you think you and Attorney General Mukasey have such different interpretations of his tenure as attorney general?

AYER: Well, all I'm doing is looking at what he's doing. And I did give them a very long list, which I won't run through here. But the - it's not ambiguous or mistakable. It's entirely clear that he is working in both of these ways. I don't know what Attorney General Mukasey is up to here. I don't know what his - he was a very good judge. And I think he was a decent attorney general. And why he is thinking about this the way he is now is a mystery to me. But the facts don't support it.

SHAPIRO: All right. Donald Ayer served as deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.

Thank you for joining us today.

AYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.