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Schiff says Trump is making a 'direct attack' on rule of law: 'It's all out in the open'

Updated 11:07 AM ET, Thu February 13, 2020

Washington (CNN) - House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff offered a forceful rebuke of President Donald Trump's praise for the Justice Department's intervention in sentencing recommendations for longtime Trump associate Roger Stone, calling it a "direct attack" on the rule of law.

"I'm struck by the fact that it's all out in the open. I mean, we will certainly learn about what's taking place behind the scenes, the sort of clandestine effort to weigh in and help the President's friends and hurt the President's enemies," the California Democrat told CNN's David Axelrod on "The Axe Files" podcast. "But the fact that this is being done in the open in a way makes it more insidious, because it is normalizing this attack on the independence of our justice system."

The lead House impeachment manager's comments come after Trump congratulated Attorney General William Barr on Twitter for "taking charge" of the sentencing recommendation for Stone -- a stunning endorsement of the controversial and politically charged decision to reduce prosecutors' recommended sentence.

The intervention prompted the four federal prosecutors who had successfully taken Stone's case to trial to withdraw their involvement Tuesday. Stone is set to be sentenced next week for lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing a congressional committee proceeding.

"We now have a President, and an attorney general who's willing to go along with him, that is in the business of investigating political opponents. That is in the business of providing lenient sentences for those that will commit crimes to cover up for the President and try to get harsher sentences on people like Michael Cohen or others that will speak out against the President," Schiff said.

"I've never witnessed in my lifetime or my consciousness -- I mean, we saw some elements of this, I guess, during Watergate -- such a wholesale assault on the rule of law here," he said, adding that "it's hard, when you see this going on in real time, to be optimistic."

The Justice Department's intervention comes as the President -- emboldened by his impeachment acquittal -- has made clear in recent days that siding against him will not be tolerated as he fights for reelection.

Trump's decision to abruptly withdraw a Treasury Department nomination for Jessie Liu, the former US attorney who headed the office that oversaw Stone's prosecution, was directly tied to her former job, CNN has learned.

Last week, the President fired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council and US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland -- both key impeachment witnesses -- along with Vindman's twin, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, a National Security Council attorney.

The dismissals appear to be retribution for Vindman's and Sondland's explosive testimony in the House impeachment inquiry late last year, which was done under subpoena.

An adviser to Trump said the firings were meant to send a message that siding against the President will not be tolerated.

"Flushing out the pipes," the adviser told CNN. "It was necessary."

When asked about the firings Wednesday, Schiff said, "The whole point is to humiliate and attack anyone who would speak out against the President."

"But to go after this Purple Heart recipient -- and it's not just the removal of his position in the White House and that of his brother -- but the demonization of him by the President's allies in Congress, by people on Fox prime time," Schiff said.

"[They're] rewarding people who lie to cover up the President's misdeeds."


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