WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors are expected to back away from a stiff prison sentence recommended for President Donald Trump’s longtime ally, Roger Stone, a Justice Department official said Tuesday, hours after the president condemned the recommendation.
The unusual move was met with swift backlash, with Democrats calling for an investigation and accusing the Justice Department of allowing political considerations to outweigh the judgment of career prosecutors. By Tuesday afternoon, two prosecutors who worked on Stone’s case and prepared the sentencing recommendation had withdrawn from the case.
In a strongly worded court filing Monday afternoon, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia recommended Stone serve seven to nine years in prison. Attorneys said Stone had committed a “direct and brazen attack on the rule of law” by “consciously, repeatedly, and flagrantly” obstructing a federal investigation by lying to Congress.
But on Tuesday, hours after the president called the sentence recommendation a “miscarriage of justice” on Twitter, the Justice Department appeared to have intervened.
The Justice Department official, who is not authorized to comment publicly, characterized the recommendation by District of Columbia prosecutors as “extreme, excessive and disproportionate” to Stone’s crimes.
The official said the recommendation differed from what prosecutors briefed Justice Department officials on prior to the filing. The official said a new sentencing recommendation was expected in court Tuesday.
There was no discussion about the matter with the White House, the official said.
Stone, who’s scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 20, was found guilty in November of lying to Congress and obstructing the Russia investigation to protect Trump and his presidential campaign.
The 67-year-old longtime GOP operative is the latest Trump ally to be convicted in cases stemming from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia did not return a call seeking comment.
In a one-page filing Tuesday afternoon, Aaron Zelinsky notified the court he is withdrawing from Stone’s case and he has resigned “effective immediately” as special assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
Zelinsky, a federal prosecutor at the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore for several years, joined Mueller’s team during the Russia investigation. He stayed on with the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia, where he helped prosecute Stone.
Marcia Murphy, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore, said Zelinsky remains a prosecutor there.
Former federal prosecutor David Weinstein said a revised sentencing filing would be unusual, given its proximity to Trump’s criticism of the initial recommendation.
“The proper vehicle for a president who disagrees with a prosecution or sentence is a pardon or commutation, not a tweet,” Weinstein said.
“In my experience, it is very unusual for the government to file a revised sentencing recommendation after setting out their position in a thorough pleading that was filed after the defense and probation office had announced their position,” Weinstein said. “It was also unusual for DOJ to now have direct input in a case that had been handled by a U.S. attorney’s office.”
Trump critics and legal observers swiftly criticized the reversal.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said the Justice Department is sending “an unmistakable message” that it joins Trump in protecting those who lie to Congress in order to protect him.
“I do not take a position on the proper prison term for Mr. Stone, but it would be a blatant abuse of power if President Trump has in fact intervened to reverse the recommendation of career prosecutors at the Department of Justice,” Schiff said in a statement.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, accused the Justice Department of “extraordinary political interference.”
“Those who lie to cover up the president’s misconduct get leniency; those who expose it are shown the door or worse,” Leahy tweeted, referring to the ouster of two officials who testified in the impeachment proceedings. “These are dangerous times for the institutions that support our democracy.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called for an investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Stone’s convictions stem from his actions in 2016, when he sought to create back-channel communications with WikiLeaks to find out about stolen emails that were damaging to then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and to push for their release.
Stone repeatedly lied to the House Intelligence Committee about his efforts, falsely denying that he talked to the Trump campaign about them. He also urged a possible congressional witness to either lie or scuttle his testimony. The committee at that time was investigating Russia’s election interference.
Defense attorneys argued that the guideline for first-time offenders convicted of these crimes is 15 to 21 months. They asked that Stone be sentenced to probation.
“Roger Stone is far more than the persona he projects in the media. As those who know him well attest, he is a man devoted to his friends and family, but also someone who has repeatedly extended himself well beyond the normal range to assist virtual strangers,” his attorneys wrote.
Stone’s attorneys also argued that he should not be punished for his behavior after he was indicted in January 2019, saying his longstanding problems with anxiety were “heightened” while his case was pending.
Stone repeatedly violated a gag order preventing him from speaking publicly about the case. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson later banned him from using social media.