WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Under pressure from President Donald Trump, the U.S. Justice Department on Monday abruptly moved to seek a shorter prison sentence for veteran Republican operative and long-time Trump adviser Roger Stone, a highly unusual step that prompted three prosecutors to quit the case.
FILE PHOTO: Roger Stone, former campaign adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, departs after he was found guilty on seven criminal counts in his trial on charges of lying to Congress, obstructing justice and witness tampering in this still image taken from video at U.S. District Court in Washington, U.S., November 15, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Fogarty
Senior department officials – hours after Trump publicly complained that Stone was being treated unfairly – overrode the sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years made on Monday by federal prosecutors who secured Stone’s November conviction. Stone was found guilty on seven counts of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering.
Democrats blasted the department’s reversal in the high-profile case involving Stone, whose friendship with Trump dates back decades. Stone’s trial arose from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that detailed extensive Russian interference in the 2016 election to benefit Trump’s candidacy.
Trump early on Tuesday took to Twitter to criticize the proposed sentence as a “miscarriage of justice.”
“This is a horrible and very unfair situation,” the Republican president wrote on Twitter early on Tuesday about Stone.
After the department’s action was disclosed, three of the four prosecutors who won Stone’s conviction – Aaron Zelinsky, John Crabb and Jonathan Kravis – withdrew from the case. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson is due to sentence Stone on Feb. 20.
Kravis told the court in a filing he was not only leaving the case but quitting his post as a federal prosecutor.
The department did not specify a new proposed sentence.
Legal experts described the move as highly unusual, and Democrats accused the Justice Department, headed by Trump political loyalist William Barr, of working to protect Trump’s political interests.
‘HELP HIS FRIENDS’
“The president seems to think the entire Justice Department is just his personal lawsuit to prosecute his enemies and help his friends,” Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, told reporters.
“They are turning us into a banana republic,” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen added on Twitter.
Stone, who has labeled himself a “dirty trickster” and “agent provocateur” and famously has the face of former President Richard Nixon tattooed on his back, was one of several Trump associates charged with crimes as part of Mueller’s investigation.
In a court filing on Monday, prosecutors said their proposed sentence fell within U.S. guidelines and would “accurately reflect the seriousness of his crimes and promote respect for the law.”
That came as a surprise to senior Justice Department officials who were expecting prosecutors to ask for a lower range, said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Justice Department has not been in touch with the White House over the matter, the official said.
Legal experts said it would be unusual for prosecutors to change their proposed sentence after filing a formal recommendation to the court, especially on a high-profile case like this in which senior Justice Department officials as well as courtroom prosecutors are involved in the decision-making.
Several said that the proposed sentence struck them as unusually severe. Stone’s defense team, in a filing late on Monday, disputed the prosecution’s calculation and proposed a range of between 15 and 21 months. They asked the judge for a sentence that would fall below that range.
“It is high, but the prosecutors obviously felt there were extenuating circumstances that justified the enhancements,” said Lynn Niels, a former federal prosecutor.
Mueller’s investigation detailed a Russian campaign of hacking and propaganda in the 2016 election and extensive contacts between the president’s campaign and Moscow. Stone was one of only two of these Trump associates who went to trial rather than pleading guilty.
Trump has the power to pardon people for federal crimes, although he has yet to use it in the cases of other former aides convicted in the wake of the Mueller investigations.
“We look forward to reviewing the government’s supplemental filing,” Stone’s lawyer, Grant Smith, said in an email to Reuters.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Nathan Layne, Karen Freifeld, Mark Hosenball, Brad Heath and Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham and Andy Sullivan