Trump commutes sentence of Roger Stone in a case he long denounced

Roger Stone departs a federal courthouse after his sentencing, in Washington, Feb. 20, 2020.
Roger Stone departs a federal courthouse after his sentencing, in Washington, Feb. 20, 2020.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime friend Roger Stone on seven felony crimes Friday, using the power of his office to spare a former campaign adviser days before Stone was to report to a federal prison to serve a 40-month term.

In a lengthy written statement punctuated by the sort of inflammatory language and angry grievances characteristic of the president’s Twitter feed, the White House denounced the “overzealous prosecutors” who convicted Stone on “process-based charges” stemming from the “witch hunts” and “Russia hoax” investigation.

The statement did not assert that Stone was innocent of the false statements and obstruction counts, only that he should not have been pursued because prosecutors ultimately filed no charges of an underlying conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia. “Roger Stone has already suffered greatly,” it said. “He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!”

The commutation, announced late on a Friday when potentially damaging news is often released, was the latest action by the Trump administration upending the justice system to help the president’s convicted friends. The Justice Department moved in May to dismiss its own criminal case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. And last month, Trump fired Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney whose office prosecuted Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal lawyer, and has been investigating Rudy Giuliani, another of his lawyers.

Democrats quickly condemned the president’s decision, characterizing it as an abuse of the rule of law. “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,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a leader of the drive to impeach Trump last year for pressuring Ukraine to incriminate his domestic rivals.

Two House committee chairmen quickly announced that they would investigate the circumstances of the commutation, suggesting that it was a reward for Stone’s silence protecting the president. “No other president has exercised the clemency power for such a patently personal and self-serving purpose,” said a statement issued by Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, both D-N.Y.

Stone, 67, a longtime Republican operative, was convicted of obstructing a congressional investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign and possible ties to Russia. Prosecutors convinced jurors that he lied under oath, withheld a trove of documents and threatened an associate with harm if he cooperated with congressional investigators. Stone maintained his innocence and claimed prosecutors wanted him to offer information about Trump that he said did not exist.

As his time to report to prison neared, Stone openly lobbied for clemency, maintaining that he could die in prison and emphasizing that he had stayed loyal to the president rather than help investigators.

“He knows I was under enormous pressure to turn on him,” Stone told journalist Howard Fineman on Friday shortly before the announcement. “It would have eased my situation considerably. But I didn’t.”

In an interview with Fox News this week, he characterized himself as collateral damage in the quest to target Trump. “He is aware that the people trying to destroy Michael Flynn, now trying to destroy me, are the people trying to destroy him,” Stone said.

In an appearance on Fox last month, Stone even suggested that he wanted to help Trump win in November, saying his biggest fear of going to prison other than his health was “that I may not be free to do everything within my power to reelect this president.”

While it was not clear when the two last spoke before the decision, Trump called Stone on Friday to deliver the news of his clemency personally, according to an official briefed on the conversation.

The president has used his power to issue pardons or commutations to a variety of political allies, supporters or people with connections to his own circle, like former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik, financier Michael Milken and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois.

But Stone is the first figure directly connected to the president’s campaign to benefit from his clemency power. While Trump has publicly dangled pardons for associates targeted by investigators, that was a line he had been wary of crossing until now amid warnings from advisers concerned about the possible political damage.

The debate over clemency for Stone has raged within the White House for months. Among those who advocated on behalf of it from outside the building were Tucker Carlson, the influential Fox News anchor, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., according to people familiar with the discussions.

Within the White House, Stone had few allies. Many Trump aides who knew him from the campaign did not like him, were envious of his long relationship with Trump or thought clemency would be bad politics.

Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, expressed concern about potential political consequences, according to two people familiar with the discussions, although he has left people with different impressions about where he stands. The same is true of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who has been involved in most of the clemency discussions throughout the past three years.

Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, was concerned about intervening on Stone’s behalf, according to the people close to the discussions. One of the few within the White House who backed clemency was Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser and an old friend of Stone’s. Kudlow spends more time with Trump than many other advisers.

“Mr. Stone is incredibly honored that President Trump used his awesome and unique power under the Constitution of the United States for this act of mercy,” Grant Smith, Stone’s lawyer, said after the announcement. “Mr. and Mrs. Stone appreciate all the consideration the president gave to this matter.”

Stone has been one of the most flamboyant rogues in American politics for decades, maintaining a wardrobe of more than 100 suits, bleaching his hair, posing for photographs half-naked and cheerfully engaging in dirty tricks that others would disavow. He made political contributions to a Republican challenger to President Richard Nixon in 1972 under the name of the Young Socialist Alliance and hired an operative to try to infiltrate the campaign of George McGovern, the Democratic candidate.

He was accused of leaving a threatening, profanity-laced voicemail message for the father of Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York, resulting in Stone’s resignation. But he later got his revenge on Spitzer by claiming credit for spreading the rumor that the governor wore black dress socks during sexual escapades with prostitutes.

An unapologetic admirer of Nixon who even had the disgraced president’s face tattooed on his back, Stone also worked for other major Republican candidates including President Ronald Reagan, Gov. Thomas Kean of New Jersey and Sen. Bob Dole, the party’s 1996 nominee for president.

Stone’s history of scandals and dirty tricks did not trouble Trump. Stone not only is Trump’s longest-serving political adviser but also has been integral to most of his political activities over the past three decades.

He was there when the celebrity real estate developer first wrote “The Art of the Deal” in 1987 and a makeshift effort in New Hampshire was made to draft Trump to run for president. He helped organize Trump’s speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2011 when he declared himself against abortion rights. And he helped map out the first days of Trump’s 2016 campaign before quitting over its direction. The falling out was sour, part of a roller-coaster, feud-and-friends relationship between the two men that played out over the years. At one point, Trump called Stone a “stone-cold loser,” and aides later said the president viewed him as a self-promoter.

But after Stone was indicted, the president repeatedly assailed the prosecutors, judge and even jury forewoman, hinting at a possible pardon. “Roger Stone and everybody has to be treated fairly,” Trump said after the sentencing in February. “This has not been a fair process.”

Stone was sentenced against a backdrop of upheaval at the Justice Department not seen for decades. Four career prosecutors recommended that he be sentenced to 7 to 9 years in prison, citing advisory sentencing guidelines.

After Trump attacked the recommendation on Twitter, Attorney General William Barr overruled it. Trump then publicly applauded him for doing so, even though the attorney general said he made the decision on his own and criticized the president on television for undercutting his credibility.

The prosecutors withdrew from the case in protest, and one quit the department entirely. At Stone’s sentencing hearing, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia called the situation “unprecedented.” Without naming him, she suggested that the president had tried to influence the course of justice by publicly attacking her, the jurors and the Justice Department lawyers.

“The dismay and disgust at any attempt to interfere with the efforts of prosecutors and members of the judiciary to fulfill their duty should transcend party,” she said.

In an interview with ABC News this week, Barr defended both the original prosecution of Stone as well as his own intervention to reduce the punishment, saying the case itself was “righteous” but the sentencing recommendation “excessive.”

Stone, who lives in Florida, had been ordered earlier to report to the Bureau of Prisons by June 30 to begin serving his sentence. He sought a two-month delay, citing the coronavirus pandemic sweeping through federal prisons, but Jackson granted him only a two-week reprieve, noting that the prison he was to report to was “unaffected” by the outbreak.

Two other former aides to Trump who were convicted of federal crimes were released from prison to serve out their sentences under home arrest because of the pandemic.

Cohen, who broke with Trump and publicly accused him of vast wrongdoing, was released from a federal prison camp in May but taken back into custody this week after refusing to agree to terms of his home confinement that would have forced him to scrub a tell-all book he planned to publish in September. He was serving a three-year sentence for campaign finance violations and other crimes related to a scheme to pay hush money during the 2016 race to two women who said they had affairs with Trump, which the president has denied.

Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman, was also released in May from a central Pennsylvania prison, where he was serving a 7 1/2 year sentence for bank and tax fraud. He is now confined at home.

Trump has suggested he might issue clemency to other associates and the extended statement released by the White House on Friday night sought to make the case that the Russia investigation was so illegitimate that charges resulting from it were themselves invalid.

“These charges were the product of recklessness borne of frustration and malice,” the statement said. “This is why the out-of-control Mueller prosecutors, desperate for splashy headlines to compensate for a failed investigation, set their sights on Mr. Stone.”

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