Prosecutor defends initial DOJ recommendation at Stone sentencing

The Justice Department on Thursday again shifted positions on its recommended punishment for President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders says he wouldn't 'drop dead' if Trump decided on universal healthcare Overnight Health Care: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | Democrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next relief deal | Fauci says death toll could be around 60,000 Hillicon Valley: State officials push for more election funds | Coronavirus surveillance concerns ramp up pressure for privacy bill | Senators warned not to use Zoom | Agencies ask FCC to revoke China Telecom's license MORE’s longtime associate Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneJuan Williams: Mueller, one year on House Judiciary Committee postpones hearing with Barr amid coronavirus outbreak Trump 'strongly considering' full pardon for Flynn MORE, the latest development in a controversial episode that raised questions of White House interference at the agency. 

Stone ultimately received a sentence of three years and four months at the conclusion of his Thursday sentencing hearing. But this came after top department officials last week overruled the seven- to nine-year prison term recommended by trial prosecutors in favor of a lighter sentence.

On Thursday, though, Justice Department prosecutor John Crabb, a recent addition to Stone’s case, defended the original memorandum and a key argument for imposing a stiffer sentence.

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“It was done in good faith,” Crabb told U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, an Obama appointee, before she handed down Stone’s sentence.

Trial prosecutors, following federal guidelines, initially recommended a prison sentence of seven to nine years for Stone. But after Trump blasted that decision on Twitter, top Justice Department officials urged the court to apply a far lighter sentence, which last week led the entire four-person prosecution team to resign in apparent protest.

Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrOvernight Health Care: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | Democrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next relief deal | Fauci says death toll could be around 60,000 COVID-19 is no excuse for Attorney General Barr to skirt the rule of law Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening MORE denied the White House had influenced the decision. But critics said top department officials’ decision to overrule career prosecutors on behalf of Trump’s longtime adviser was evidence of political influence over the department and raised concerns about the rule of law under Trump.

Jackson on Thursday pressed Crabb to explain why the Justice Department changed its positions from the first sentencing memo to the amended version that urged more leniency.

Crabb declined to reveal details about the behind-the-scenes decisionmaking process but defended the integrity of the trial team.

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In another apparent shift, Crabb also supported a key portion of the original sentencing recommendation that was based in part on Stone’s conduct toward Randy Credico, a comedian and radio host who testified at the trial. 

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.

At trial, prosecutors showed that Stone, using threats and often vulgar language, repeatedly pressured Credico, who had interviewed WikiLeaks founder Julian AssangeJulian Paul AssangeJudge orders Chelsea Manning's release from jail Lawyers: Chelsea Manning recovering after suicide attempt Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 MORE, not to cooperate with congressional investigators who were looking into Trump campaign ties with Russia. 

Credico ultimately decided to assert his Fifth Amendment rights after the panel issued him a subpoena. He said on the stand that Stone’s influence played a role in that decision. 

In the Justice Department's initial sentencing memo, prosecutors said Stone’s threats toward Credico warranted a substantial increase to his sentence. 

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The original memo noted that Credico later said he did not believe Stone would follow through on his threats. But in recommending their enhanced sentencing, they pointed to Credico’s trial testimony in which he worried that Stone’s words, if repeated in public, might make “other people get ideas.”

When top Justice Department officials intervened in Stone’s case, their supplemental memo appeared to undercut the significance of Stone’s dealings with Credico.

“While Mr. Credico’s subjective beliefs are not dispositive as to this enhancement, the court may consider them when assessing the impact of applying the enhancement — particularly given the significant impact that the enhancement has on the defendant’s total guidelines range,” reads the second memo, which was signed by Crabb.

But on Thursday, Crabb told Jackson that the Justice Department stood behind its initial judgment that the threat against Credico should increase the severity of Stone’s sentence. 

“Our position is this enhancement applies,” Crabb said. “And we ask the court to apply it.”

Jackson said the original sentencing recommendation was thorough and well-supported but ultimately ruled that a prison term of seven to nine years was too steep.

Crabb apologized to Jackson for the "confusion and difficulty" that resulted from the Justice Department's shifting positions.

"It was not caused by the original trial team," he said.