Stone faces sentencing amid political firestorm
Roger Stone is set to be sentenced Thursday in the midst of a growing political controversy after the Trump administration intervened in his case to push for a lighter prison sentence than originally sought by prosecutors.
President Trump himself helped ignite the controversy, loudly calling for a light sentence for his longtime ally, attacking the original prosecution team and using the case to declare himself the nation’s “chief law enforcement officer.”
A firestorm engulfing the sentencing process over the past week has quickly eclipsed the facts of the case, which centers around what Stone told Congress about his role as a back channel between the 2016 Trump campaign and WikiLeaks, which was releasing damaging stolen emails from then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee at the time.
A jury convicted Stone in November of seven counts of lying to Congress and witness tampering following a trial that featured testimony from former Trump campaign officials Stephen Bannon and Richard Gates.
Last week, the prosecutors in the case, which stemmed from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, recommended that Stone be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison. But the next day, the Trump administration retracted the sentencing memo and suggested a lighter punishment.
That prompted an uproar as the original prosecution team withdrew from the case, with one of the attorneys even resigning from his post.
The reversal is the latest effort from Attorney General William Barr to insert himself in the cases brought by Mueller’s team. Last week, the New York Times reported that Barr had brought in an outside prosecutor to review the case against Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, whose plea agreement with Mueller over charges of lying to investigators has fallen apart in recent weeks.
Trump has inserted himself into the controversy, railing on Twitter against the prosecutors, the Obama-appointed judge presiding over Stone’s case and the forewoman of the trial jury. On Tuesday, he continued to vent against the Mueller investigation and even suggested he might sue the officials behind it.
“Everything having to do with this fraudulent investigation is badly tainted and, in my opinion, should be thrown out,” Trump wrote in a series of tweets on Tuesday. “The whole deal was a total SCAM. If I wasn’t President, I’d be suing everyone all over the place. BUT MAYBE I STILL WILL. WITCH HUNT!”
Trump also publicly backed Stone’s lawyers’ request for a new trial, which they submitted to the court last week in a sealed motion. The president says that he has not pressured Barr on the Stone and Flynn cases while at the same time insisting that he has the right to do so if he wishes.
“Just so you understand: I chose not to be involved,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday. “I’m allowed to be totally involved. I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country, but I’ve chosen not to be involved.”
The furor over Trump’s remarks also led to a rare public break between the president and his attorney general. Barr in an interview warned Trump against commenting on active criminal cases and said his tweets made it “impossible” for the attorney general to do his job.
Also hanging over the Stone case since it began is the question of whether Trump will pardon his longtime ally and former adviser. The New York Times has reported that the president brought up the idea to his aides, but Trump denied giving it any thought in his comments to reporters on Tuesday.
But this week, Trump flexed his pardon power in a way that critics construed as a message to Stone and Flynn. On Tuesday, he pardoned or commuted the sentences of 11 people, including Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who was serving a 14-year prison sentence for trying to sell a Senate seat, and other noted white-collar criminals.
Trump and the Justice Department’s moves over the past week have brought new uncertainty around Thursday’s sentencing.
Stone’s legal team and the original prosecutors agreed that federal sentencing guidelines recommend a base sentence of somewhere between one and two years in prison. The prosecutors had argued that several factors in the case point toward a significant sentencing enhancement of between seven and nine years. Justice Department officials overruled that recommendation, asking the judge for a sentence that was “far less.”
Stone’s attorneys told the judge that the facts of the case lend themselves in favor of a more lenient sentence, without jail time. His lawyers also cited Stone’s character in asking for a lighter sentence.
“As a 67-year-old first time offender convicted of serious but non-violent crimes, Roger Stone’s history and characteristics support a sentence below the advisory Guidelines range of imprisonment,” Stone’s legal team wrote in a filing last week. “As detailed in the accompanying letters from his family and friends, Roger Stone is far more than the persona he projects in the media.”
But it’s unclear how Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will interpret the conflicting recommendations from the Justice Department.
Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor who served nearly 30 years at the Justice Department under Democratic and Republican administrations, says he doesn’t believe that Jackson’s sentencing decision will be influenced by the turmoil that’s engulfed the case in recent days.
“I think Judge Amy Jackson will give it the weight it deserves and that is nothing,” Rossi said. “She can see through what has happened. The prosecutors filed a memo asking for seven to nine years and I have to stress that they followed the sentencing guidelines, which is the bible to federal career prosecutors.”
Rossi said that he would guess the judge would choose a sentence somewhere between the guidelines’ base sentence recommendation of one to two years and the prosecution’s original recommendation of seven to nine.
What is clear is that Trump has felt emboldened since his acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial and is speaking out in defense of his embattled associates.
“I think Roger Stone has been treated unfairly,” he said Tuesday. “I think General Flynn has been treated very unfairly. I think a lot of people have been treated very unfairly.”
Asked whether he believes Stone should serve any prison time, the president responded, “Let’s see what happens.”
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