US President Donald Trump faced fresh accusations of abuse of power Tuesday after the Justice Department moved to override its own prosecutors seeking a stiff sentence for Republican political operative Roger Stone.
The move to cut the suggested sentence of seven to nine years for Stone, a longtime Trump cohort convicted in November of lying to Congress and witness tampering, came after a late-night tweet from Trump complaining about the move by federal prosecutors.
“This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” Trump tweeted.
After a top Justice official then told media that a new, lower sentencing request would be submitted, four of the case’s prosecutors withdrew, adding to the turmoil.
Senior House Democrat Adam Schiff said that Trump’s actions undermined the rule of law.
“It would be a blatant abuse of power if President Trump has in fact intervened to reverse the recommendations of career prosecutors at the Department of Justice,” Schiff, who led the impeachment investigation of Trump, said in a statement.
“Doing so would send an unmistakable message that President Trump will protect those who lie to Congress to cover up his own misconduct, and that the Attorney General will join him in that effort.”
‘Extreme and excessive’
Stone, who has advised Trump on politics for decades and consulted on his successful 2016 presidential campaign, was arrested in January 2019 at his home in Florida on charges brought by then-special counsel Robert Mueller as part of the Russia meddling investigation.
He was charged in connection with his 2017 testimony to lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee — which Schiff leads — investigating Kremlin efforts to damage Trump’s election rival Hillary Clinton.
He was accused of lying about acting as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks, which released hacked documents that embarrassed Clinton during the campaign.
Stone’s jury conviction on all seven counts in November made him the sixth person tied to Trump to be convicted on charges brought by Mueller.
Prosecutors recommended the stiff sentence on Monday, saying Stone threatened a witness in the case and implicitly threatened the judge by posting a picture of her on Instagram with what appeared to be a gunsight’s crosshairs.
He also repeatedly lied to the court and disobeyed a gag order, prosecutors said.
In the wake of Trump’s late-night tweet, an unnamed senior Justice Department official criticized the sentence to reporters and said the prosecutors would file a new, lower sentence recommendation later Tuesday.
“The department finds the recommendation extreme and excessive and disproportionate to Stone’s offenses,” the official said.
It is extremely rare for Justice Department leaders to reverse the decision of its own prosecutors on a sentencing recommendation, particularly after that recommendation has been submitted to the court. Normally, United States attorneys have wide latitude to recommend sentences on cases that they prosecuted.
The departures came abruptly after the decision by Justice. Jonathan Kravis resigned his position as an assistant US attorney. He had been a veteran prosecutor in Washington, and though not part of Robert Mueller’s original team, was nonetheless involved in multiple cases brought by the special counsel’s office.
Besides the Stone prosecution, Kravis had also signed onto the case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, which resolved with a guilty plea, and against a Russian troll farm accused of sponsoring a cover social media campaign aimed at dividing public opinion during the 2016 presidential election.
Aaron Zelinsky quit the case and his job in Washington, and would go back to his job as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore. He was working there when he was selected in 2017 for the Mueller team.
He was involved in cases aimed at determining what knowledge the Trump campaign had about Democratic emails that were hacked by Russia and what efforts Trump aides made to get information about them. He was also involved in the prosecution of George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign aide who played a critical role in the FBI launching its investigation in the summer of 2016.
A third prosecutor, Adam Jed, who was an early member of Mueller’s team, also withdrew from the case. His status at the Justice Department was not clear. Before joining Mueller’s team, he worked on civil cases there.
By Tuesday evening, a fourth prosecutor, Michael Marando, had left the case.
Trump later told reporters that he didn’t speak to Justice officials. “I would be able to do it if I wanted,: he said. ”I have the absolute right to do it. I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn’t believe, but I didn’t speak to them.”
Stone has denied wrongdoing and consistently criticized the case against him as politically motivated. He did not take the stand during his trial and his lawyers did not call any witnesses in his defense.
Witnesses in the case testified that Trump’s campaign viewed Stone as an “access point” to the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks, which was in possession of more than 19,000 emails hacked from the servers of the Democratic National Committee and tried to use him to get advance word about hacked emails damaging to Hillary Clinton.
Prosecutors charged that Stone lied to Congress about his conversations about WikiLeaks with New York radio host Randy Credico — who had scored an interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2016 — and conservative writer and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi.