The Department of Justice will force federal prosecutors to cut their recommended prison sentence for Republican political operative Roger Stone — a longtime ally of President Donald Trump — from the term of seven to nine years that they first suggested Monday night.
Justice Department officials objected to the very stiff recommended prison term for Stone, which was made by prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C.
A new sentencing recommendation is expected to be filed today in U.S. District Court in Washington. Stone, 67, is due to be sentenced there Feb. 20 for crimes related to lying to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential election and his efforts to get an associate, comedian Randy Credico, to cover for his lies.
Trump early Tuesday morning blasted the original recommended sentence for Stone.
Trump called the original sentencing suggestion “disgraceful” and also tweeted that “this is a horrible and very unfair situation.”
It is highly unusual for the DOJ to reverse a sentencing recommendation after it has been made by prosecutors in a U.S. Attorney’s office that has prosecuted a defendant.
The entire prosecution team for Roger Stone’s case abruptly withdrew from that proceeding Tuesday afternoon, just over a week before Stone’s sentencing — in an apparent protest of interference from Justice Department higher-ups over a sentencing recommendation for the longtime Trump adviser.
First, Aaron Zelinsky, who worked on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team and then aided the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia in Stone’s trial, told a judge in a filing Tuesday that he was withdrawing from the case and had “resigned effective immediately” from his role in that office, where he was on temporary assignment.
Now, it does not appear that Zelinsky is resigning from the Justice Department entirely — his regular post is in the US Attorney’s Office for Maryland, and he does not mention resigning from that.
Yet shortly afterward, a second Stone prosecutor, Jonathan Kravis, told the court he was also leaving the case because he “has resigned as an Assistant United States Attorney.” And then the other two prosecutors on the team, Adam Jed and Michael Marando, announced that they were withdrawing as well (though not resigning). Taken together, the moves are an unmistakable protest against Justice Department leadership.
President Trump praised his attorney general Wednesday for “taking charge” of the Roger Stone case. But if the events of the last several days tell us anything it’s that the person having the biggest influence on the proposed prison sentence for the convicted Trump ally is the president himself.
Despite the president’s insistence that he “didn’t speak to the Justice Department” and that he has “not been involved with that at all,” it’s abundantly clear that a single Trump tweet on Tuesday set in motion an unprecedented collapse of prosecutorial independence. In fact, the real “miscarriage of justice” is that Trump’s meddling, and Barr’s willingness to bend his department’s policies to serve Trump’s personal interests, will have a disastrous long-term effect on the public’s confidence in the essential fairness of federal prosecutors.
To understand how a more or less routine sentencing turned into a completely unnecessary political scandal, let’s look at the stunning series of events.
On Tuesday, four federal prosecutors filed a court document recommending that Roger Stone—who was convicted in November of lying to Congress and witness tampering—receive a sentence of seven to nine years in prison. Less than one day later, all four men either withdrew from the case or resigned, and a high-ranking supervisor filed a document asserting that the sentence recommended one day earlier was “excessive and unwarranted,” asking for a sentence that was “far less” severe.
The Justice Department’s initial recommendation was consistent with its usual policy, which is that in a “typical case,” a recommendation of a sentence within the Federal Sentencing Guidelines range is appropriate. DOJ policy requires “supervisory approval” to recommend a sentence above or below the guidelines range.
The policy does state that an “individualized assessment of the facts and circumstances of a particular case” can support a recommendation for a sentence below the guidelines range consistent with “the interests of justice and the public interest.”
In my experience, federal prosecutors handling high-profile cases discuss sentencing recommendations with their supervisors. It’s hard to believe that they signed the name of the United States Attorney appointed by Trump without that attorney’s approval. And no one can seriously believe that the Justice Department conducted an “individualized assessment” that changed its view one day after it recommended a guidelines sentence for Stone.
What changed between Monday and Tuesday? This could be it: “This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”—a tweet sent by Trump. For criminal defendants, it pays to have a friend in the Oval Office.
Although the DOJ tried to distance its decision from Trump’s tweet, it is unheard of for the Justice Department to recommend a sentence on one day and tell the judge one day later that what they recommended the day before was wrong.
It’s also highly unusual for all four prosecutors on a case to withdraw, apparently in protest of the politically motivated move. For the acting criminal chief of their office—a man three rungs above them on the organizational chart—to personally appear in the case and file the document reversing their position is just as unusual.
Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell of the District of Columbia on Thursday released a public statement in defense of the federal trial judge overseeing Roger Stone’s sentencing next week, a rare move after President Donald Trump criticized the judge.
“The Judges of this Court base their sentencing decisions on careful consideration of the actual record in the case before them; the applicable sentencing guidelines and statutory factors; the submissions of the parties, the Probation Office and victims; and their own judgment and experience,” Howell said. “Public criticism or pressure is not a factor.”
While the statement does not name her directly, it’s a clear defense of U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the District of Columbia, who is presiding over Stone’s case.
Trump had questioned in a tweet earlier this week whether Jackson, who has handled several Mueller-related cases, ordered ex-Trump campaign head Paul Manafort be placed in solitary confinement. She did not.
The president has repeatedly weighed in on Stone’s sentencing, which is scheduled for next week. Earlier Thursday, he suggested the foreperson on the jury was biased, apparently citing a Fox News report.
Jackson on Wednesday rejected Stone’s request for a new trial, which had been made under seal. In the lightly redacted document, she said Stone had cited a juror being an attorney with the Internal Revenue Service and being shown an article about Stone’s case while on their way to court as reasons for a redo. Those claims, Jackson ruled, were not sufficient grounds for a new trial.
Stone’s sentencing is under intense public scrutiny after Main Justice on Tuesday stepped in to walk back line prosecutors’ initial recommendation that the longtime Trump ally be sentenced to up to nine years in prison. The new sentencing memo states that Stone should face prison time, but the length of the sentence be left to Jackson.
More than 1,000 former U.S. Justice Department officials on Sunday called for Attorney General William Barr to resign over his handling of the trial of a longtime adviser of President Donald Trump.
The former officials, who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, criticized Barr, the country’s top law enforcement officer, for overruling his own prosecutors in a case that has prompted accusations that the Trump administration is weakening the rule of law.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department abandoned prosecutors’ initial recommendation to give the veteran Republican operative Roger Stone seven to nine years in prison after he was found guilty in November of seven counts of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering, prompting all four prosecutors to quit the case.
“It is 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,” said the letter, published on the website Medium.
“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,” the letter said.