The White House announced Friday that President Trump is commuting the prison sentence of his longtime friend and sometimes campaign adviser Roger Stone, the culmination of a scheme one federal judge called a coverup for the President.
While the President has broad constitutional authority to issue commutations and pardons, his move to rescue Stone from his prison sentence is perhaps the most extreme example yet of the President’s eagerness to shield his allies from the criminal justice system. Stone was scheduled to surrender on Tuesday.
The commutation was announced in a ranting statement ostensibly issued by White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany.
It called Stone the “ victim of the Russia Hoax” pushed by “the out-of-control Mueller prosecutors” who “took pains to make a public and shameful spectacle of his arrest.”
“The simple fact is that if the Special Counsel had not been pursuing an absolutely baseless investigation, Mr. Stone would not be facing time in prison,” the statement claimed.
Stone was convicted of lying to Congress about conversations he had related to hacks of Democratic emails in the 2016 election. Stone had engaged in a “deliberate, planned” effort to obstruct the U.S. House’s Russia probe, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said at his sentencing in February.
“He was not prosecuted, as some have complained, for standing up for the President, he was prosecuted for covering up for the President,” the judge said then.
A jury in Washington, D.C. last year found him guilty of all the counts prosecutors had brought alleging false statements, witness tampering and obstruction.
Stone was convicted for lying specifically about conversations he had regarding Wikileaks’ release of hacked Democratic emails ahead of the 2016 election. Stone withheld from Congress documents that would have shed light on relevant communications he had with both the campaign and with intermediaries to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. He also threatened a potential witness who could have blown up the false account of communications he gave to House investigators.
He recently had sought to delay his surrender date until late summer, citing the COVID-19 outbreak. The judge instead ordered that he start serving his sentence on July 14.
The statement announcing the commutation pointed to several bogus conspiracies Stone, Trump and their allies pushed about federal prosecutors. It alluded to the debunked claim that prosecutors tipped off CNN to Stone’s arrest. It reiterated Stone’s allegations, already dismissed by a judge, that his jury was biased against him because the foreperson once tweeted negatively about Trump.
And the statement asserted the prosecutors only “set their sights on Mr. Stone” because they were “desperate for splashy headlines to compensate for a failed investigation.”
“Not only was Mr. Stone charged by overzealous prosecutors pursing [sic] 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,” the statement said.
Trump’s pardon of Stone’s crimes is the latest step the President and his allies have taken to undo key prosecutions brought by special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Trump’s Justice Department is in the midst of an extraordinary legal battle so that it can walk away from its prosecution of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn — a prosecution the Justice Department had defended until May, when it filed its bombshell request to drop the case.
Prior to Trump’s Stone commutation, the Justice Department, under the direction of Attorney General Bill Barr, had also sought to water down the sentencing recommendation that had been submitted for Stone by the career DOJ attorneys who had led the prosecution in his case.
One of those career attorneys testified to Congress last month that a fear of angering the President had motivated DOJ higher-ups to pressure the prosecutors to pull back on their recommendations.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose committee Stone lied to, said Friday that of Trump’s “countless acts that are both self-serving and destructive to our democracy,” the Stone commutation was “among the most offensive to the rule of law and principles of justice.”
“With this commutation, Trump makes clear that there are two systems of justice in America: one for his criminal friends, and one for everyone else,” Schiff said in the statement responding to the commutation news.
While the Justice Department cooperated with some of Stone’s initial requests to postpone his surrender date, ostensibly because of the coronavirus outbreak, the Department has stopped short of supporting his more recent gambits to put off prison and Barr this week said he believed Stone’s sentence was fair.
The reprieve Trump granted Stone was a long time in the making. Their friendship goes back to the 1980s, when Stone was launching a lobbying shop with Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who was also prosecuted by Mueller.
Stone advised Trump through the years on several flirtations Trump had with running for President.
Though their political relationship suffered a public break-up in 2015 at the beginning of the Trump campaign, the two seem to have remained in contact, particularly in the summer of 2016, according to evidence presented in Stone’s trial. Phone records connected Stone to a number suggested to be Trump’s on several occasions that summer, just as the release of hacked Democratic emails was ramping up. Emails also showed Stone’s outreach to the campaign regarding the email dumps. Former members of the Trump campaign testified about their knowledge of Stone phone calls with Trump during which Wikileaks’ plans were apparently discussed.
Even as Trump had at times publicly distanced himself from Stone, he turned into a Stone defender once Mueller formally brought charges against the longtime GOP operative. Trump went on several Twitter tirades about the prosecution, including a particularly notable series of attacks during Stone’s sentencing. Stone meanwhile claimed that Mueller was prosecuting him because he had refused to give false testimony against the President.
Discussions between Trump and his advisors about potentially pardoning Stone reportedly picked up as Stone’s surrender date loomed. Some advisers encouraged Trump to commute Stone’s sentence rather than outright pardon him, according to a Politico report, in the hopes that a commutation would be less politically damaging than a full blown pardon.
Repeatedly in June, Trump used his Twitter account to preview the action he took Friday. He commented on one tweet calling for a pardon that Stone was “victim of a corrupt and illegal Witch Hunt” and that he “can sleep well at night!” Late last month, he retweeted another tweet urging that Stone be pardoned.
Trump also made comments in recent interviews hinting at his plans to give Stone some relief — including one interview where he was told Stone was “praying” for a pardon.
“If you say he’s praying, his prayer may be answered,” Trump said.
To explain why Trump was commuting Stone’s sentence rather than pardoning him, the Friday night statement referenced Stone’s appeal of his conviction and Stone’s efforts to “vindicate himself before the courts.”
“The President does not wish to interfere with his efforts to do so,” the statement said, but Trump nonetheless was commuting his sentence “in light of the egregious facts and circumstances surrounding his unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial.”
“Roger Stone has already suffered greatly. He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!” the statement said.
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