On Monday, February 10, 2020, federal prosecutors recommended a nine-year prison sentence for Roger Stone, a close ally of President Donald Trump. The sentence, for obstructing a congressional investigation, was immediately decried by the president as being too severe. Soon after, the Department of Justice (DOJ) stepped in to reduce the sentence.
The four lawyers who prosecuted the case against Stone have all withdrawn from the case in protest of the decision.
Roger Stone’s sentence challenged
On November 15, 2019, a federal jury found Stone guilty of lying under oath and obstructing Congress’ investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election. He was charged with seven counts and convicted on all of them.
This past Monday, the prosecutors in the case recommended that Stone receive a nine-year sentence.
Though Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who presided over the case, wasn’t set to sentence Stone until February 20, the recommended sentence drew immediate criticism from Trump on Twitter.
The president responded to the announcement of the recommended sentence by calling it a “very unfair situation” and exclaimed, “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”
Trump also said, “The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them.” Trump did not clarify what those crimes were or who “them” referred to.
The Department of Justice steps in
As reported in the Washington Post, an official with the DOJ said on Tuesday, February 11 that the department had not been briefed on the sentencing recommendation and had been “shocked” by the “extreme and excessive” recommendation. The official vowed that the sentencing recommendation would be revised to be “far less”.
In response, all four of the trial’s prosecutors – Adam Jed, Jonathan Kravis, Mike Marando, and Aaron Zelinsky – withdrew from the case. As US Attorneys, the four men work for the DOJ. Kravis and Zelinsky went even further, resigning from the D.C. US Attorney’s office.
Trump reacts to the resignations
Trump responded to the four resignations on Twitter, asking “Who are the four prosecutors (Mueller people?) who cut and ran after being exposed for recommending a ridiculous 9 year prison sentence to a man that got caught up in an investigation that was illegal, the Mueller Scam, and shouldn’t ever even have started? 13 Angry Democrats?”
Jed and Zelinsky were both members of Robert Mueller’s team of investigators who looked into whether Trump had colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. Trump frequently dismissed that investigative team as “13 angry Democrats”, implying they were biased against him.
Mueller’s final report on the investigation found insufficient evidence that Trump had conspired with Russia, but Mueller stressed in his Congressional testimony that the president was not exonerated by the investigation. It was Mueller’s investigation that led to the seven criminal charges brought against Stone.
Trump took to Twitter later to criticize the judge in the case and to congratulate Attorney General William Barr “for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought.”
Concerns over Trump’s actions
With Trump as the de facto head of the DOJ (the president has the authority to fire the Attorney General), some are concerned that he is using the department as a political weapon. In addition to protecting his allies, Trump has previously indicated that he wants the DOJ to investigate political enemies, specifically Hillary Clinton, his rival in the 2016 election.
Responding to the unusual circumstances around Stone’s sentencing, Chris Hayes, an on-air journalist with MSNBC, tweeted, “What’s happening at DOJ today is as bad and overt an example of the Department being subverted and corrupted as anything we’ve seen so far.”
In a Wednesday morning interview in the Oval Office, Trump was asked if he had spoken to the DOJ about Stone’s sentencing. He said he hadn’t, but he would be able to do it if he wanted to because he had “the absolute right to do it.”
Who is Roger Stone?
Roger Stone has been a Republican operator for decades. His fierce loyalty to the party extends to having had an image of former President Richard Nixon’s head tattooed on his back (Stone worked on Nixon’s campaign). He also had business dealings with Trump well before the latter entered politics.
In a 2008 New Yorker story about Stone entitled, “The Dirty Trickster” (an epithet that has stuck to him), the political fixer is described as a man who uses dubious tactics to win, for himself and his allies. In that same piece, Trump, then a real estate tycoon with a successful reality TV series, is quoted as saying, “Roger is a stone-cold loser.”
Nonetheless, throughout the 2016 election, Stone remained a staunch supporter of then-candidate Trump. Until August 2015, he was even part of Trump’s presidential campaign.
An investigation published by The Atlantic in February 2017 reported that prior to election day, Stone was in direct communication with WikiLeaks, the Julian Assange-led group that published embarrassing emails from Clinton and her allies. Stone was also in communication with Guccifer 2.0, a hacker later determined to be a Russian agent who hacked the Democratic National Committee.
Tweets from Stone at the time suggested he had knowledge of the hacked emails and when they would be released.