WASHINGTON – The Justice Department backed away from a stiff prison sentence recommended for Roger Stone, a longtime ally of President Donald Trump – an unusual move that follows Trump’s public criticism of the recommendation and overrules the department’s career prosecutors.
The backtracking was met with swift backlash Tuesday. In a matter of hours, four attorneys who worked on Stone’s case and prepared the sentencing recommendation abruptly quit the prosecution team. Democrats called for an investigation, accusing the Justice Department of political meddling in a criminal prosecution.
Although a Justice Department official said the about-face was not influenced by Trump, it raised new questions about the politicization of the agency.
“This is a devastating blow to the department’s reputation in the courts,” said Mary McCord, former chief of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “The only thing that seems to be causing it is the president, and the notion that the department is going to do the president’s political bidding.”
“I never thought I would be saying something like this,” McCord said. “Some of this damage is going to be really hard to fix.”
Stone 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.
Stone is due to be sentenced next week. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia initially recommended he serve seven to nine years in prison.
In a strongly worded court filing Monday, 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 Tuesday, hours after the president called the recommendation a “miscarriage of justice,” the Justice Department reversed course, criticizing prosecutors for recommending a lengthy prison sentence.
A Justice Department official, who is not authorized to comment publicly, characterized the recommendation as “extreme, excessive and disproportionate” to Stone’s crimes. The official said the recommendation differed from what prosecutors had briefed Justice Department officials on.
In a five-page filing late Tuesday afternoon, the Justice Department said the initial recommendation “does not accurately reflect” the agency’s position. Although the department maintains imprisonment is warranted, the agency said seven to nine years “would not be appropriate.” It didn’t say what would be.
The new prosecutor on the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Crabb Jr., asked U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson to consider Stone’s “advanced age, health, personal circumstances, and lack of criminal history” in sentencing him.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump said he did not ask the Justice Department to change its recommendation, though he would be allowed to.
“I thought the (original) recommendation was ridiculous. I thought the whole prosecution was ridiculous,” Trump said.
In one-page filings Tuesday afternoon, Jonathan Kravis, Aaron Zelinsky, Adam Jed and Michael Marando notified the court they were withdrawing from Stone’s case. Kravis, an assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia, resigned.
Zelinsky resigned from his temporary role as special assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia, though he remains a federal prosecutor in Baltimore, where he served for several years.
Zelinsky and Jed had been members of Mueller’s team.
Their departures come as the leadership of the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, the largest in the country, is in transition. Two weeks ago, Timothy Shea, who served as counselor to Attorney General William Barr, was appointed as interim chief prosecutor.
The office did not return calls seeking comment.
Democrats call for investigation
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to immediately investigate “how and why” the career prosecutors’ recommendations “were countermanded” and which officials from the department and the White House were involved in the decision.
“This situation has all the indicia of improper political interference in a criminal prosecution,” Schumer wrote in a letter to Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
“The American people must have confidence that justice in this country is dispensed impartially,” Schumer wrote. “That confidence cannot be sustained if the president or his political appointees are permitted to interfere in prosecution and sentencing recommendations in order to protect their friends and associates.”
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.
DOJ intervention is unusual
Former federal prosecutor David Weinstein said changing a sentencing recommendation is unusual, especially after the president weighed in.
“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.”
Bruce Udolf, a criminal defense attorney in Florida who served as an associate independent counsel during the Whitewater investigation, said the judge would be free to summon prosecutors assigned to the case or the attorney general to explain the changes in the government’s sentencing recommendation.
“I’m not aware of any instance in my 11 years as a federal prosecutor in which main Justice (the department leadership) reversed a local prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation,” Udolf said. “It stinks to high heaven.”
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. At the time, the committee 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.
Contributing: David Jackson and Michael Collins