Trump commutes prison sentence of longtime friend Roger Stone
Roger Stone was expected to report to prison by Tuesday
US President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime political confidant Roger Stone on Friday, just days before he was set to report to prison.
The move, short of a full pardon, is sure to alarm critics who have long railed against the president’s repeated interventions in the nation’s justice system.
Mr Stone had been sentenced in February to three years and four months in prison for lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House investigation into whether Mr Trump's election campaign colluded with Russia to win the race for the White House in 2016. He had been ordered to report to prison by Tuesday.
Mr Stone told The Associated Press that Mr Trump had called him earlier on Friday to inform him of the commutation. After receiving the news, Mr Stone celebrated with conservative friends in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called Mr Stone a “victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media”.
“Not only was Mr Stone charged by overzealous prosecutors pursing a case that never should have existed, and arrested in an operation that never should have been approved, but there were also serious questions about the jury in the case,” she said in a statement.
A commutation does not erase Mr Stone’s felony convictions in the same way a pardon would, but it would protect him from serving prison time as a result.
The action, which Mr Trump had foreshadowed in recent days, reflects his lingering rage over the Russia investigation and is a testament to his conviction that he and his associates were mistreated by agents and prosecutors.
His administration has been eager to rewrite the narrative of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, with Mr Trump’s own Justice Department moving in May to dismiss the criminal case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Mr Stone, for his part, had been open about his desire for a pardon or commutation, appealing for the president’s help in a series of Instagram posts in which he maintained that his life could be in jeopardy if imprisoned during a pandemic. He had recently sought to postpone his surrender date by months after getting a brief extension from the judge.
Mr Trump had repeatedly publicly inserted himself into Mr Stone’s case, including just before the sentencing, when he suggested in a tweet that his friend was being subjected to a different standard than several prominent Democrats. He railed that the conviction “should be thrown out” and called the Justice Department’s initial sentencing recommendation “horrible and very unfair”.
“Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” he wrote.
Mr Stone, a larger-than-life political character who embraced his reputation as a dirty trickster, was the sixth Trump aide or adviser to have been convicted of charges brought as part of Mr Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Mr Stone had boasted during the campaign that he was in contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange through a trusted intermediary and hinted at inside knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans to release more than 19,000 emails hacked from the servers of the Democratic National Committee.
But Mr Stone denied any wrongdoing and consistently criticised the case against him as politically motivated. He did not take the stand during his trial, did not speak at his sentencing, and his lawyers did not call any witnesses in his defence.
Mr Trump also targeted those involved in the case. He retweeted a comment by Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano that the jury appeared to have been biased against Mr Trump, and called out Judge Amy Berman Jackson by name, saying “almost any judge in the country” would throw out the conviction.
The tweets continued even after the president earned a public rebuke from his own attorney general, William Barr, who said Mr Trump’s comments were “making it impossible” for him to do his job. Mr Barr was so incensed that he told people he was considering resigning over the matter.
Prosecutors had originally recommended Mr Stone serve seven to nine years in a federal prison. But, in a highly unusual move, Mr Barr reversed that decision after a tweet from the president and recommended a more lenient punishment, prompting a mini-revolt inside the Justice Department, with the entire prosecution team resigning from the case.
Department officials have vehemently denied Mr Barr was responding to Mr Trump’s criticism and have insisted there was no contact with the White House over the decision. Mr Barr has also pointed out that the judge, in imposing a 40-month sentence, had agreed with him that the original sentencing recommendation was excessive.
Mr Barr, who was attorney general during Mr Stone’s trial last autumn, has said the prosecution was justified, and the Justice Department did not support Mr Stone’s more recent effort to put off his surrender date. Though the Justice Department raised concerns about the handling of Mr Flynn’s case, including what it said were irregularities about his FBI interview, prosecutors did not point to any similar issues or problems with Mr Stone's prosecution.
Even so, the pardon will almost certainly contribute to the portrait of a president determined — particularly in an election year — to undo the effects of a Russia investigation that has shadowed his administration from the outset, and to intervene on behalf of political allies.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, had long kept the door open to a reprieve.
“You’re going to see what happens. Let’s see what happens,” he said when asked in February whether Mr Stone deserved prison time, adding, “Somebody has to stick up for the people.”
He told Sean Hannity in an interview on Thursday night that it was a “disgrace they didn’t give him a retrial”. Asked if he was considering a pardon, he added: “I am always thinking.”
That language prompted a preemptive rebuke from House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, who tweeted after the sentencing that “to pardon Stone when his crimes were committed to protect Trump would be a breathtaking act of corruption”.
The commutation was the latest example of the president using his unlimited clemency power to pardon powerful men he believes have been mistreated by the justice system.
Mr Trump went on a clemency spree in February, commuting the 14-year prison sentence of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, and pardoning former New York City police commissioner Bernie Kerik, financier Michael Milken and several others.
Mr Trump has also offered clemency to other political allies, including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was awaiting sentencing at the time, conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who had been convicted on campaign finance violations, and Conrad Black, a newspaper publisher convicted of fraud who had written a flattering book about the president.
Mr Trump, however, has spent much more time trumpeting his decision to commute the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, who was serving life in prison for nonviolent drug offenses and who came to Mr Trump’s attention after reality star Kim Kardashian West took up her cause. Her story was featured in a Trump campaign Super Bowl ad.
Updated: July 16, 2020 01:56 AM