‘I don’t know what they said. I hope they were reinforcing America’s foreign policy, not their own’
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed on Tuesday a group of Democratic senators who reportedly met in secret with Iran’s foreign minister during a foreign policy conference held over the weekend in Germany.
A delegation of Democratic senators reportedly led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) held a secret powwow with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the annual Munich Security Conference, where Pompeo was an official speaker.
The meeting was not officially sanctioned by the U.S. government and appears to have been held in secret to avoid media scrutiny. State Department officials have been clear that they did not play any role in facilitating the meeting or backing it.
Pompeo, speaking to reporters during a tour through Africa, said that the Democrats who participated in the meeting are aiding and abetting the globe’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism and anti-Semitism.
“This guy is designated by the United States,” Pompeo said, referring to Zarif’s recent addition to official U.S. terrorism lists.
“He’s the foreign minister for a country that shot down an airliner and has yet to turn over the black boxes,” Pompeo continued, referencing Iran’s recent downing of a commercial airliner that killed all of those aboard. “This is the foreign minister of a country that killed an American on December 27. This is the foreign minister of a country that is the world’s largest state sponsor of terror and the world’s largest sponsor of anti-Semitism.”
“If they met,” he said of the Democratic senators. “I don’t know what they said. I hope they were reinforcing America’s foreign policy, not their own.”
Sen. Murphy did not respond to a request for comment.
While the details of the meeting have remained unreported—with the senators involved bucking media requests to address the matter—it is likely they met with Zarif to discuss how the landmark nuclear deal can be saved. As the Trump administration tightens the economic noose on Iran through tough sanctions, Iran has responded by ramping up its contested nuclear research. Leading Democrats have repeatedly expressed their willingness to reenter the United States into the deal ever since President Trump scrapped it.
Pompeo is scheduled to continue high-level meetings in Ethiopia through Wednesday, where he will promote U.S. investment and security matters. His ongoing trip has sought to counter concerns that America will pull critical security assistance from African nations currently combating terrorism and other regional security challenges.
From Ethiopia, Pompeo will head to Saudi Arabia for several days of meetings that are likely to focus on Iran.
During his years as the top federal prosecutor in Pittsburgh, David J. Hickton said, there was always a “very clear” line between policy direction from Washington and interference from the White House.
But in recent days, he said, that line appears to have disappeared.
Hickton, an appointee of President Barack Obama who served from 2010 to 2016, is among more than 2,000 former Justice Department employees who have signed on since Saturday to a public letter calling on Attorney General William Barr to resign.
The group — including more than a dozen past federal prosecutors from Pennsylvania and New Jersey — criticized his handling of the case against President Donald Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone. They exhorted current department employees to report unethical conduct and prepare, if necessary, to leave their jobs in protest.
“The line between permissible policy direction by the administration and impermissible illegal political interference is very clear,” Hickton said Monday. “It has been crossed here. What’s going on is clearly illegal.”
That groundswell from alumni is the latest sign that the Justice Department’s handling of the Stone case has ignited a crisis of confidence among many of its former employees and affected morale among career prosecutors across the country.
On Tuesday, a national association of sitting federal judges is expected to convene an emergency meeting to address similar concerns, its president, Philadelphia-based U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe, said.
“There are plenty of issues that we are concerned about,” Rufe, a George W. Bush appointee, told USA Today. “We’ll talk all of this through.”
The list of former employees from U.S. Attorney’s Offices in Pennsylvania and New Jersey who signed this weekend’s letter includes registered Republicans and Democrats, career prosecutors and political appointees — some stretching back as far as the Carter administration.
Among the signatories are Peter J. Smith and Paul Fishman — Obama’s top federal prosecutors in Harrisburg and New Jersey, respectively — as well as Michael Levy, who twice served as interim U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, once each under Obama and Bush.
Many of those who signed said they had worked under Barr during his first stint as attorney general in the early ‘90s during the George H.W. Bush administration.
They said they had been hopeful when he was renominated for the post in 2018 that he would restore steady, apolitical stewardship to an office that had become a frequent presidential punching bag during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Barr “behaved extraordinarily professionally back then,” said Barry Gross, who served more than two decades as an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia and is now a partner at the Center City offices of law firm Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath.
But the attorney general’s public defense of Trump after the publication of Mueller’s report last year and his actions in the Stone case last week have caused some former colleagues to question whether he has gone too far in protecting the president and his allies.
Stone, a top adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, faces sentencing this week after his November conviction for lying to Congress and obstruction of justice.
The four line prosecutors who tried the case had originally recommended a prison sentence of seven to nine years. But after the president publicly attacked their recommendation on Twitter, the Justice Department, at Barr’s urging, filed an updated sentencing memo suggesting Stone should receive a lighter sentence.
Barr has said he did not talk to the president about the Stone sentence — a claim that drew skepticism from DOJ alumni in their Sunday letter.
“Mr. Barr’s actions in doing the president’s personal bidding unfortunately speak louder than his words,” it read. “Those actions, and the damage they have done to the Department of Justice’s reputation for integrity and the rule of law, require Mr. Barr to resign.”
All four of the prosecutors originally assigned to Stone’s case withdrew from the case in protest. One of them, Jonathan Kravis, resigned from the department. He had been a traveling DOJ trial attorney assigned to prosecute cases across the country and had a hand in many of Philadelphia’s most notable public corruption cases in recent years.
Kravis was part of the team that secured the 2016 conviction against former Democratic U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah on bribery and corruption charges. He also led the trial prosecution of State Sen. Larry Farnese, who was acquitted in 2017 of bribery charges, and helped build the case that sent two of former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady’s top advisers to prison for campaign violations last year.
Gross, who faced off against Kravis in court representing one of Fattah’s codefendants, praised his decision to leave the Stone case and his job.
“Even though I fought him in court and took a completely different view of the evidence, I found him to be 100% professional, ethical, and a really bright guy,” Gross said. “I applaud him for what he did here.”
Fattah’s case was also disrupted last year when intervention from Justice Department officials in Washington sewed division with the local federal prosecutors who had secured the former congressman’s conviction.
Last year, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a sentencing recommendation seeking at least two years’ incarceration for former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Herbert Vederman, who had been accused of bribing Fattah for years. But Vederman’s lawyers took their campaign to Justice Department officials in Washington, and just before sentencing, the department filed a new sentencing recommendation asking for one year behind bars.
The move so upset the local team that had originally tried the case that they boycotted Vederman’s sentencing hearing in protest. But Levy, the former interim U.S. attorney from Philadelphia who also spent three decades as a line prosecutor before retiring last year, drew a distinction between what happened in that case and in Stone’s.
“That was a fight over the merits” of differing opinions, he said. “The Trump administration didn’t put their thumb on the scale for a friend.”
Barr has not responded to Sunday’s letter, and Justice Department officials did not return requests for comment on Monday.
Levy, like the other signatories, said he wasn’t holding out hope that the attorney general will heed their call to step down.
Pressure is building on Attorney General Bill Barr to resign after thousands of former Department of Justice officials and members of the Federal Judges’ Association expressed concern about his conduct.
By Monday, more than 2,000 former DOJ employees from both the Republican and Democratic parties had signed a letter demanding that Barr resign, while the Federal Judges’ Association had agreed to convene an emergency meeting to discuss the attorney general’s behavior.
Their concerns center on Barr’s handling of the Roger Stone case. Stone—a long-time adviser to President Donald Trump and a veteran GOP operative—is due to be sentenced later this month for crimes uncovered during the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Last week, prosecutors recommended a jail term of seven to nine years for Stone. But after Trump condemned the proposal, the DOJ said it would issue a more lenient sentencing memo. The four prosecutors that worked on the Stone case subsequently resigned in protest.
Though Barr publicly complained about the president’s tweets on the issue, critics have accused the attorney general of undermining the rule of law to protect the president and his allies.
The open letter signed by former DOJ staff claims that Barr “openly and repeatedly flouted” the principle of equal justice under the rule of law.
The letter also warned it was “unheard of for the Department’s top leaders to overrule line prosecutors, who are following established policies, in order to give preferential treatment to a close associate of the President, as Attorney General Barr did in the Stone case.”
John Flannery—a former federal prosecutor—was among those who signed the letter. He told MSNBC Monday that Barr “has no business in that job” and called on DOJ officials to “do the job right.” He described Barr as the president’s “consigliere” and said Trump is the “chief criminal who’s running a crime syndicate out of the West Wing.”
Other former attorneys reacted to the open letter and the Federal Judges’ Association meeting on Twitter. Harry Litman, for example, said the U.S. is now in “full on crisis mode,” describing recent developments as “mind-blowing.”
Former Associate White House Counsel Ian Bassin noted, “Our institutions are sounding alarms,” while former federal prosecutor Mimi Rocah said the open letter was a “extraordinary bi-partisan show of unity.”
Former U.S. attorney Barb McQuade—now a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School—said she was among those who signed the open letter, warning, “Even the appearance of partisanship has no place in the fair administration of justice.”
Laurence Tribe—a legal scholar at Harvard Law School who advised President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign—described the Federal Judges’ Association meeting regarding Barr as “rolling thunder.”
“One stuffed goose named Barr is cooked,” he added. “2000 DOJ alumni he can ignore. 1000 federal judges? That’s an altogether different kettle of fish.”
ADDIS, Ethiopia – Speaking to reporters during a joint press conference with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to reporting that a number of Democrat Senators secretly met with Iranian Javad Zarif during the Munich Security Conference.
“I have seen that piece about some senators meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif. This guy is designated by the United States of America. He’s the foreign minister for a country that shot down a commercial airliner and has yet to turn over the black boxes. This is the foreign minister of a country that killed an American on December 27. And it’s the foreign minister of a country who is the largest world sponsor of terror and the world’s largest sponsor of anti-Semitism,” Pompeo said. “If they met, I don’t know what they said. I hope they were reinforcing America’s foreign policy and not their own.”
“Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut and other Democratic senators had a secret meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during the Munich Security Conference last week, according to a source briefed by the French delegation to the conference. Murphy’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment by press time,” the outlet reported.
Zarif was designated for sanctions by the Treasury Department last summer for sponsoring terrorism around the world.
“Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader, and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world. The United States is sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that its recent behavior is completely unacceptable,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at the time. “At the same time the Iranian regime denies Iranian citizens’ access to social media, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spreads the regime’s propaganda and disinformation around the world through these mediums.”
Senator Murphy, along with other Democrats, have repeatedly worked to preserve the deeply flawed Iranian Nuclear Agreement. The United States officially left the deal, struck during the Obama administration, in 2018.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been openly undermining United States foreign policy since President Trump took office in 2017, was also seen with Zarif in Munich.
The commercial airline flight Pompeo referred to had 176 innocent people on board from Iran, Canada, Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan, Germany and Great Britain. The Iranian government lied about shooting down the plane for days and blamed the crash on engine failure. The regime arrested the individual who took video of two missiles being launched at the aircraft, leading to its demise.