Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is calling for an investigation into the U.S. Department of Justice, which on Tuesday sought a lighter prison sentence than prosecutors originally recommended for Roger Stone — a longtime friend of President Donald Trump who was convicted in November of obstructing Congress and witness tampering.
Four federal prosecutors in the case recommended Monday that Stone serve between seven to nine years in federal prison, but then a tweet from the president early Tuesday criticized that notion as “very horrible and unfair.”
Later the same day, the Justice Department intervened and revised the recommendation, overruling its own lawyers who abruptly withdrew from the case in protest. One of them submitted an official resignation.
The revised filing from DOJ asked for no specific sentence for Stone but stated that what prosecutors previously asked for “could be considered excessive and unwarranted.”
By early Wednesday, Trump was on Twitter praising Attorney General William Barr for "taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought.” Barr agreed to testify March 31 before the House Judiciary Committee.
“Evidence now clearly shows that the Mueller Scam was improperly brought & tainted,” Trump said. “Even Bob Mueller lied to Congress!”
Stone's conviction was one of the signature prosecutions of special counsel Robert Mueller's two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
On Tuesday, Trump said he didn’t ask the Justice Department to change the sentence, but he would have the “absolute right” to do so if he wanted.
“I didn't speak to them. I thought the recommendation was ridiculous,” Trump said Tuesday in the Oval Office. “I thought the whole prosecution was ridiculous. I thought it was an insult to our country and it shouldn’t happen.”
The Justice Department also followed up Tuesday, saying the Stone case was not discussed with anyone at the White House.
But Schumer’s letter Tuesday to Department of Justice Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz suggests otherwise and urges a complete investigation into the matter.
“This situation has all the indicia of improper political interference in a criminal prosecution,” Schumer wrote to Horowitz. “I therefore request that you immediately investigate this matter to determine how and why the Stone sentencing recommendations were countermanded, which Justice Department officials made this decision, and which White House officials were involved.”
Other Democrats also questioned the DOJ decision to intervene.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said it would be a blatant abuse of power if Justice Department leadership intervened on Trump's behalf.
“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,” the California Democrat said, according to The Associated Press.
It is extremely rare for Justice Department leaders to reverse the decision of their own prosecutors on a sentencing recommendation, particularly after that recommendation has been submitted to the court.
A mass exodus from a case is also rare, though the tumult conjured up an episode from last summer when Justice Department lawyers abruptly left a lawsuit over whether a citizenship question could be added to the census, the AP reported.
NEW: Republican response
On Capitol Hill, Republicans would only comment about the principle that presidents should stay out of pending legal matters. But none asked for an explanation of Trump’s handling of Stone’s case, or suggested his actions warranted further scrutiny, The New York Times reported.
“Kind of immaterial,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Wednesday, waving off the question of whether the president or his allies at the Justice Department may have interfered with the sentencing of Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime associate, The New York Times reported.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, the Judiciary Committee chairman, also said late Wednesday he was not “losing any sleep” about the matter.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pennsylvania., refused to broach the topic: “I’m not going to have this conversation right now,” he said, ducking into the Senate subway on his way to the Capitol.
In the Senate, where Republicans are in control, some Democrats have taken to outright pleading with colleagues to speak up. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, interrupted a Banking Committee meeting Wednesday morning to implore his colleagues to stop what he called Trump’s “retribution tour.”
“We cannot give him a permanent license to turn the presidency and the executive branch into his own personal vengeance operation,” Brown said. “If we say nothing — and I include everyone in this committee, including myself — it will get worse. His behavior will get worse.”
On Wednesday, Graham brushed aside Schumer’s calls on the Senate floor for an emergency hearing into the president’s possible interference in the case, but he admonished Trump for weighing in on Twitter about Stone’s sentencing.
“I don’t think that’s appropriate,” Graham said, according to reports.
Graham said he expected Barr to appear before his committee for general oversight soon, but he did not say whether the attorney general would be questioned about the DOJ’s intervention.
On Wednesday, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler announced that Barr had agreed to testify before his committee on March 31 about Stone's sentencing reversal and other matters related to Ukraine, according to reports.
Prosecutors said the sentence they recommended for Stone was consistent with federal guidelines and that it would send a message to deter others who might consider lying or obstructing a congressional probe or tampering with witnesses, the AP reported.
The prosecutors wrote that “Stone’s actions were not a one-off mistake in judgement” and that he “decided to double — and triple — down on his criminal conduct by tampering with a witness for months in order to make sure his obstruction would be successful.”
Stone has denied wrongdoing and criticized the case against him as politically motivated.
NEW: Lawyers watching closely
To career prosecutors around the country, the Stone case raised new fears of what is to come, The New York Times reports. Until now, according to conversations with more than a dozen career lawyers in some of the 93 U.S. attorney’s offices, they had watched other divisions in the Justice Department execute significant shifts in response to Trump while the work of prosecuting crimes was largely unaffected by the politics of the moment. Now career prosecutors said they worried they might face more pressure, the Times reported.
“In essence, the leadership of the Justice Department has commandeered the sentencing in a politically sensitive criminal matter, reversing the position uniformly accepted and promoted by the career prosecutors,” said David Laufman, a partner at Wiggin and Dana and a former chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence and export control section, the Times said.
The withdrawal of the prosecutors sent a clear signal, said Greg Brower, a former prosecutor who once headed the FBI’s congressional affairs office. “They all disagreed” with how top Justice Department officials intervened, he said.
“Beyond that,” Brower said, “they likely also believed there are ethical considerations that forced their decision.”
Prosecutors across the United States, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals, said this week that they had already been wary of working on any case that might catch Trump’s attention and that the Stone episode only deepened their concern, the Times reported. They also said that they were worried that Barr might not support them in politically charged cases.
NEW: Donald Trump cites tainted jury
Citing a report from Fox News, Trump said Thursday the jury that convicted Stone had a biased member — a claim by Stone's defense team that had been dismissed by a federal judge a day earlier, according to The New York Times.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson rejected Stone’s claim that he deserved a new trial because a biased Internal Revenue Service employee sat on the jury that convicted him of lying to help Trump, according to Bloomberg News.
Asked Wednesday whether he would pardon Stone, Trump said, “I don’t want to say that yet, but I tell you what, people were hurt viciously and badly by these corrupt people.”
— Reporting by Eileen Sullivan, Nicholas Fandos and Catie Edmondson of The New York Times was used to supplement this report. Information from The Associated Press was also used to supplement this report.
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