Roger Stone is accompanied by his wife Nydia as he arrives at federal court in Washington for his sentencing on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, for obstructing a congressional inquiry in a bid to protect President Donald Trump. (The New York Times: Anna Moneymaker)
Written by Sharon LaFraniere
Roger Stone, a longtime friend of President Donald Trump’s, was sentenced Thursday to more than three years in prison for obstructing a congressional inquiry in a bid to protect the president.
The case against Stone, 67, who has known and advised Trump for years, had become a cause célèbre among the president’s supporters. Trump has attacked prosecutors, the jury forewoman and the federal judge overseeing the trial, casting his former campaign adviser as the victim of a vendetta by law enforcement.
Hours after the sentencing, Trump lashed out again at authorities for prosecuting Stone and claimed his trial was unfair, but he said he would not intervene using his clemency powers at this point.
“I’m not going to do anything in terms of the great powers bestowed on a president of the United States,” he said at an event in Las Vegas for former convicts easing back into society. “I want the process to play out. I think that’s the best thing to do because I’d love to see Roger exonerated — and I’d love to see it happen — because personally I think he was treated unfairly.”
Instead, he said he would wait to see how the case is ultimately resolved, leaving a clear impression that he would issue a pardon or commutation if he were unsatisfied. “We will watch the process and watch it very closely,” Trump said. “And at some point, I will make a determination. But Roger Stone and everybody has to be treated fairly. And this has not been a fair process. OK?”
Stone was convicted of lying to congressional investigators and trying to block the testimony of a witness who would have exposed his lies to the House Intelligence Committee. At the time, the panel was investigating whether Trump’s campaign conspired with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election.
His sentencing played out amid extraordinary upheaval at the Justice Department set off by Attorney General William Barr overruling prosecutors on the case who had asked for a seven- to nine-year sentence. Barr said that was too harsh.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson excoriated Stone, saying his efforts to thwart a legitimate congressional inquiry of national importance were “a threat to our most fundamental institutions, to the very foundation of our democracy.” But she stopped well short of the original prosecutors’ recommendation and handed down a sentence of 40 months in prison.
Without mentioning Trump or any of his allies by name, Jackson seemed to point to their conduct, too. “The dismay and the disgust at the attempts by others to defend his actions as just business as usual in our polarized climate should transcend party,” she said.
Stone is among a half-dozen former Trump aides to be convicted — many on charges of lying to investigators or obstructing inquiries — in cases stemming from the investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, into Russia’s election interference. Most already served their sentences or are in prison.
Stone’s lawyers were expected to appeal.
The case also prompted a virtual standoff between the president and Barr over Trump’s comments about it. The president has criticized the jury’s verdict, claiming that “the real crimes were on the other side.” He intensified those attacks after prosecutors recommended that Stone be sentenced to up to nine years in prison, in accordance with advisory sentencing guidelines. Their request, Trump said, was “horrible and very unfair” and constituted a “miscarriage of justice.”
Almost simultaneously, Barr overruled the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation, and a new one was filed in court. It recommended a more lenient sentence but left the specific length of a prison term up to the judge. The reversal, more aligned with Trump’s preference, led all four prosecutors to withdraw from the case. One resigned from the Justice Department entirely.
John Crabb, a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, apologized during the sentencing hearing for “the confusion” over the government’s sentencing position and stressed that the prosecutors who quit from the case were not to blame for it.
He said that department policy is to follow the sentencing guidelines in recommending punishment, and those prosecutors did so. He also said the department continued to believe that aggravating factors in the case had boosted the penalty recommended under the guidelines for Stone fivefold. “The Department of Justice and the United States attorney’s office is committed to enforcing the law without fear, favor or political influence,” he said.
He said Stone’s offenses were serious and worthy of a “substantial period of incarceration” but left it up to the judge to decide the right punishment. He blamed the competing sentencing memorandums on “miscommunication” between Timothy Shea, the interim U.S. attorney, and his superiors at Justice Department headquarters.
The case ignited a broader controversy as former and current government lawyers accused Barr of failing to protect the department from improper political influence from the White House. In an open letter, more than 2,000 former Justice Department employees have called for Barr to resign, claiming “interference in the fair administration of justice” by both the attorney general and the president.
In a television interview last Thursday, Barr said he had decided to recommend a more lenient punishment for Stone based on the merits of the case. He also asked the president to stop publicly opining about the department’s criminal cases, saying it was making his job “impossible.”
In a last-ditch effort to delay the sentencing, Stone’s lawyers moved for a new trial on the basis of juror misconduct — a claim that Trump highlighted in one of his tweets.
Jackson said she would review the motion and the government’s response and would schedule a hearing if necessary. But she refused to put off Stone’s sentencing while those efforts were underway.
At the sentencing, Jackson took special umbrage at the defense team’s argument to the jury that Stone’s lies did not matter. “The truth still exists. The truth still matters” in official government proceedings, she said. Otherwise, she said, “everyone loses.”
In their initial sentencing memorandum, federal prosecutors said that Stone deserved a stiff sentence because he threatened a witness with bodily harm, deceived congressional investigators and carried out an extensive, deliberate, illegal scheme that included repeatedly lying under oath and forging documents.
Even after he was charged in a felony indictment, prosecutors said, Stone continued to try to manipulate the administration of justice by threatening Jackson in a social media post and violating her gag orders. Those and other factors justified a stiff sentence under advisory federal guidelines, they said.
The witness, a New York radio host named Randy Credico, ultimately invoked his Fifth Amendment rights rather than testify before the House Intelligence Committee, although he later was interviewed by the FBI and appeared before a federal grand jury.
In a letter submitted to the judge on Stone’s behalf, Credico undercut the prosecutors’ argument, saying he never feared that Stone himself would harm him. But during the trial, he testified that he feared that Stone, a well-known political commentator, could create havoc in his life if he did not bend to his wishes, and prosecutors said he feared that Stone could stir others to violence.
In their second sentencing memo, prosecutors said, “Ultimately, the government defers to the court as to what specific sentence is appropriate under the facts and circumstances of this case.”
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