Opinion | Criminal Justice

Free Roger Stone

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Attorney General William Barr is right that presidential tweets on Department of Justice (DOJ) cases make his job difficult in today's super-charged political environment. But President Trump is also right that the case of his associate, Roger Stone, is nothing but a political prosecution that, until the president tweeted about it, got little attention or examination.

For all the hullabaloo about Trump's tweets, which are nothing more than an expression of opinion, remember that in five of the last six special or independent counsel investigations, such interventions were not at all unusual. Both Democratic and Republican presidents pardoned numerous figures caught in the penumbra of those probes, especially those prosecuted for process crimes. President George H.W. Bush pardoned former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger even before his trial for allegedly lying to an independent counsel; President Bill Clinton pardoned most of the Whitewater figures who were his friends, and even President Barack Obama pardoned Gen. James Cartwright, his "favorite general," after Cartwright pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

Just untangling what the Stone case is about can be a mindbender. Stone publicly bragged about a direct line to WikiLeaks, then downplayed or omitted in congressional interviews his contacts with radio host and political activist Randy Credico after acknowledging he had been in touch with Jerome Corsi, a well-known conspiracy theorist. He did not turn over to Congress these communications or a text to the Trump campaign that "the package" was coming. No actual contacts with WikiLeaks were found, and there was nothing illegal about any of these communications, so concealing them had no point. Stone then wrote some over-the-top texts to Credico with allusions to "The Godfather" and threatened Credico's dog. Critically, Credico testified that he did not take these texts seriously based on his relationship with Stone. So, the "victim" of this intimidation saw them as typical Stone hyperbole.

I wrote two articles about a year ago pointing out how misguided this case was and how unfair were the actions of the judge. Unlike the prosecutions of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, Stone was accused of no financial crime, failure to file as a lobbyist, or any other business or financial malfeasance. This was not for lack of trying: Prosecutors went through every aspect of Stone's life and called witnesses galore, even bringing in the "Manhattan Madame" to testify. But they obviously found nothing of interest. Yet, at the end of their investigation, long after they knew there was no Trump-Russia collusion, special counsel Robert Mueller's prosecutors circled back to go after Stone as a parting gift of their $31 million investigation. Even though Stone's infractions were of absolutely no consequence, they went after him with a vengeance.

Presumably, Stone's "intimidating" texts then served as justification for arresting him with an armada of 26 armed officers, weapons drawn, and an amphibious unit out back in case he had a speedboat ready for a mad dash to Cuba or Venezuela. The raid, conveniently broadcast by CNN, telegraphed to the world that Stone was a danger to the republic of the highest order.

On top of this, Stone drew the same judge that threw Manafort into solitary confinement and denied him reasonable bail. Stone didn't have a passport, so the judge was unable to repeat that here; instead, she issued a gag order, ostensibly to prevent him from tainting the jury pool - a pool that had been tainted by the very public raid that CNN was there to cover in all its armed glory.

New evidence of how tainted that pool was comes from the late-breaking fact that the jury foreman in Stone's case had cheered on both the Mueller investigation and the very raid that arrested Stone. You see, in the eyes of this judge, there was no problem with that raid; the problem was in letting Stone defend himself in public and raise funds for his defense. The gag order remained in place, remarkably, even after the jury was picked and deliberated - when the First Amendment's prior restraint had no purpose whatsoever but to shield the court from criticism and pressure Stone to cave rather than appeal.

Let's review some of the lies told by others in the Trump and Hillary Clinton investigations that were not prosecuted:

  • Hillary's closest aides denied to the FBI that they knew her private email server existed, even though they later turned out to be partially responsible for maintaining it.
  • A Platte River Networks employee realized that he forgot to destroy Hillary's emails, then destroyed them after they were subpoenaed. He "lied his ass off," according to the FBI - and his punishment for both acts was immunity. 
  • Former FBI director James Comey lied repeatedly about his contacts with the media and that he gave out classified information, according to the DOJ's inspector general.
  • Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to Congress about the surveillance of American citizens, concealing a potentially illegal program for years until it was uncovered.
  • Former British spy Christopher Steele lied to the FBI about his contacts with the press and, as a result, a warrant was inappropriately issued against Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
  • Many in the FBI and the DOJ appear to have lied about the use of Steele's dossier and their failure to verify anything of substance in it while they used and reused it, despite conflicting information from its key source, to spy on Page.

Not one of these lies has been prosecuted. Not even the documented "lack of candor" by fired FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, recorded on tape. Not even the doctoring of an email by a DOJ lawyer to try to affirm the surveillance of Page.

So what was the consequence of Roger Stone's actions in his congressional testimony? Did he wholesale destroy records, snoop on Americans without justification, cause warrants to be issued falsely? No, there was absolutely no consequence to it, and any reasonable prosecutor would have dropped it or offered him the same jail sentence that another Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, got - two weeks.

I am no fan of Stone's tactics and history. I am a fan of an FBI and a DOJ that treat everyone equally.

The principal concern of the country's Founders was that people not be railroaded by runaway prosecutions and public fury. Somehow, things have been turned upside down so that defending people who have the weight of the state thrown at them is seen as perverting our system of justice. (The system of pardons is yet another check on the power of runaway bureaucrats and prosecutors who wield power without facing the public for an election.)

Yes, in the age of Twitter, it's very messy - but if there were not political prosecutions like Stone's, Twitter might not be necessary.

Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a global organization of digital-first marketing companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of "Microtrends Squared." He also is CEO of MDC Partners, an advertising and marketing firm. He served as pollster and adviser to former President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton's impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.

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