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DOJ lawyers resign en masse over Roger Stone sentencing
The entire prosecutorial team on Roger Stone's case resigned Tuesday after the Department of Justice (DOJ) asked a federal court to reduce the seven- to nine-year prison sentence the lawyers had initially recommended, sparking new questions about potential White House interference at the agency.
The department told a federal judge that its earlier recommendation "does not accurately reflect the Department of Justice's position" and asked the judge to impose a sentence that was "far less."
"The government respectfully submits that a sentence of incarceration far less than 87 to 108 months' imprisonment would be reasonable under the circumstances," the DOJ wrote.
The stunning reversal came less than 24 hours after career DOJ prosecutors said the longtime adviser to President Trump deserved a lengthy prison term. And the department's decision followed an early Tuesday morning tweet in which Trump denounced the recommended prison sentence as "horrible and very unfair."
"The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!" Trump said, sharing a message from a Daily Caller reporter.
Shortly after, reports surfaced that the department would recommend a lesser sentence. Over the following hours, all four of the DOJ lawyers central to Stone's prosecution and initial sentencing recommendation would withdraw from the case.
Aaron Zelinsky, an ex-member of former special counsel Robert Mueller's team, stepped down from his special assignment to the Stone case. Prosecutors Adam Jed and Michael Marando also withdrew from the matter. One lawyer, Jonathan Kravis, announced his resignation as an assistant U.S. attorney, leaving his government post entirely.
None commented publicly after their withdrawal, but the move was widely seen as a protest in response to what legal experts said was a damning rebuke of the career prosecutors who had secured Stone's conviction on all seven of the federal counts he faced.
Trump on Tuesday denied having instructed the DOJ to change its sentencing recommendation while insisting he would have the authority to do so if he chose to exercise it.
"I'd be able to do it if I wanted. I have the absolute right to do it. I stay out of things," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office when asked whether he asked the department to change the recommendation.
"I didn't speak to them. I thought the recommendation was ridiculous. I thought the whole prosecution was ridiculous," Trump continued. "I thought it was an insult to our country."
Stone, a 67-year-old right-wing provocateur, was found guilty in November of lying to Congress and witness tampering related to his efforts to provide the Trump campaign inside information about WikiLeaks in 2016.
Prosecutors recommended in a Monday filing that Stone serve between seven and nine years in prison in accordance with federal guidelines.
"Roger Stone obstructed Congress's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, lied under oath, and tampered with a witness," the DOJ's Monday court filing read. "And when his crimes were revealed by the indictment in this case, he displayed contempt for this Court and the rule of law."
The prosecutors wrote that a sentence of up to nine years would "accurately reflect the seriousness of his crimes and promote respect for the law."
Stone's attorneys in a Monday night filing asked that the judge impose probation as an alternative to prison.
In its new filing Tuesday, DOJ said Stone's crimes do warrant a prison sentence, but that the seven to nine years recommended a day before "would not be appropriate or serve the interests of justice in this case."
The DOJ's shifting position raised new questions about whether political interference played a role, and renewed concerns about the nature of Attorney General William Barr's relationship with the Trump White House.
Some reports on Tuesday quoted anonymous department officials who said the decision to seek a lesser sentence happened prior to Trump's tweets. But that is unlikely to convince the administration's critics who believe Barr has a track record of intervening on Trump's behalf.
Barr angered Democrats when he supplied a key legal judgment even after Mueller declined to reach one following the nearly two-year special counsel probe into Trump campaign ties to Russia and the president's alleged obstruction of justice.
Mueller concluded the Trump team had not conspired in Moscow's 2016 election interference but declined to reach a conclusion about whether Trump had obstructed justice. Barr and the deputy attorney general concluded the president had not done so.
The reaction from Democrats on Tuesday was swift. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the lead House manager in Trump's recently concluded Senate impeachment trial, said it would amount to abuse of power if political interference had a hand in the Stone sentencing reversal.
"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 recommendations of career prosecutors at the Department of Justice," Schiff said. "Doing so would send an unmistakable message that President Trump will protect those who lie to Congress to cover up his own misconduct, and that the Attorney General will join him in that effort."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also criticized the decision and said his panel "will get to the bottom of this."
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday called on the Justice Department inspector general to launch a formal investigation into the reduced sentencing recommendation.
"This situation has all the indicia of improper political interference in a criminal prosecution," Schumer said in a letter to DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz. "I therefore request that you immediately investigate this matter to determine how and why the Stone sentencing recommendations were countermanded, which Justice Department officials made this decision, and which White House officials were involved."
Across the aisle, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) demurred when asked about the reduced sentence recommendation on Tuesday.
"I don't have an opinion on that," he told reporters.
Outside groups are also demanding answers. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Restore Public Trust are requesting DOJ documents related to Stone's case.
Stone is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 20 by D.C. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, an Obama appointee.
Legal experts said the DOJ's decision to backtrack on its initial recommendation a day later was highly unusual, especially given the first request fell within federal guidelines.
"Usually, DOJ will have internal discussions to decide its position in a case and then speak publicly with one voice," said Barbara McQuade, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and former federal prosecutor. "I have never seen a prosecutor file a brief recommending a sentence and then changing that recommendation without some change in circumstance."
Trump on Tuesday also dismissed the work of the Stone prosecutors, tying them to Mueller's probe.
"These are, I guess, the same Mueller people that put everybody through hell and I think it's a disgrace," Trump said.
But he added about the decision, "No, I have not been involved with it right now."