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Trump commutes sentence of Roger Stone ahead of prison term

Roger Stone, longtime adviser to Donald Trump, arrives at the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington on Jan. 28, 2019.

CALLA KESSLER/THE WASHINGTON POST

By SPENCER S. HSU, TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA AND RACHEL WEINER | The Washington Post | Published: July 10, 2020

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime confidant Roger Stone on Friday, using the extensive powers of the presidency to protect a felon and political ally while also lashing out against a years-long probe into Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

The move, which the White House announced in a lengthy and pugnacious statement, is the latest attempt by Trump to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller III's investigation after it consumed much of his presidency.

While the commutation was celebrated by Trump's most stalwart supporters, the muted response by Republican lawmakers and Stone's own history as a self-described "dirty trickster" indicated that the president's decision to interfere with the nation's justice system could be fraught with political risk.

Trump, who has declared himself the president of "law and order" in recent weeks, used his unique presidential authority to undermine the unanimous finding by a jury that Stone broke the law multiple times by lying to Congress and obstructing justice.

For a president who sparked a special counsel probe by firing an FBI director in the middle of an investigation and was later impeached for attempting to pressure a foreign government to investigate his political rival, the move to grant Stone clemency underscored his continued willingness to disrupt the nation's legal and political norms just months before an election.

"Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement Friday that ended with the exclamation: "Roger Stone is a free man!"

While the 643-word statement recited a litany of Trump supporters' complaints about Stone's "unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial" - including several complaints about the media - the commutation leaves Stone's conviction standing. Unlike a pardon, which would have absolved the GOP operative of any wrongdoing, the White House action only lifted Stone's punishment, a 40-month prison sentence set to begin Tuesday.

In so doing, the White House cited Stone's age, 67, saying it would put him at medical risk in prison while he continues his appeals.

Stone "maintains his innocence and has stated that he expects to be fully exonerated by the justice system. Mr. Stone, like every American, deserves a fair trial and every opportunity to vindicate himself before the courts. The President does not wish to interfere with his efforts to do so," the White House said.

Democrats quickly slammed the decision as yet another attempt by Trump to undermine the nation's justice system by protecting his friends and seeking to punish his enemies.

Bill Russo, a spokesman for former vice president Joe Biden's presidential campaign, took issue with both the substance and the timing of the commutation.

"President Trump has once again abused his power, releasing this commutation on a Friday night, hoping to yet again avoid scrutiny as he lays waste to the norms and the values that make our country a shining beacon to the rest of the world," he said in a statement. "He will not be shamed. He will only be stopped when Americans make their voice heard at the ballot box this fall. Enough."

Trump's clemency move, which went against the recommendation of his own Justice Department, is the latest sign of dysfunction within an administration that has received poor marks for its failure to control the coronavirus pandemic.

The president signaled his intentions on Twitter last month, saying Stone "was a victim of a corrupt and illegal Witch Hunt" and "can sleep well at night!" President Trump then told reporters Friday that he is "looking at" pardoning Stone, as he continued to build suspense over whether he will intervene before Stone is scheduled to report to prison next week.

"Well, I'll be looking at it," Trump said Friday, before traveling to south Florida for events including a fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale where Stone is living. "I think Roger Stone was very unfairly untreated, as were many people."

Stone was sentenced to three years and four months in prison after being convicted of seven felony counts including lying about his attempts to get details from Hillary Clinton's private emails from the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, then threatening a witness who could contradict his story.

He had been ordered to report to prison by July 14. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson had given Stone a two-week delay to quarantine before traveling from south Florida to the prison Jessup, Ga. But she denied the two month reprieve that Stone had requested with prosecutors' assent.

An appeals court Friday evening also rejected Stone's attorneys' renewed request for a delay in his prison reporting date, ruling they had failed to show why the reporting date was inappropriate or that he was likely to win an appeal for a new trial or reduced sentence. Stone's defense earlier Friday, echoing Trump's attacks against Stone's treatment by prosecutors, argued that 20 inmates at Jessup have tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks, up from zero, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Stone has argued the judge and jury in his case were biased against him. Jackson rejected that claim in April, saying Stone's argument that the forewoman's anti-Trump political views rendered the verdict against him invalid "is not supported by any facts or data and it is contrary to controlling legal precedent." Stone appealed her ruling to a higher court.

The Trump administration's intervention in Stone's case has roiled the Justice Department and the federal judiciary. Trump has repeatedly attacked the prosecutors, judge and jury. Trump also sent tweets suggesting that "everyone" involved in prosecuting the case could be sued.

All four of the prosecutors who handled the case withdrew after Barr publicly overruled their recommendation that Stone serve seven to nine years in prison. The suggestion of a more lenient sentence came after Trump complained about the initial recommendation, raising questions about White House interference in the independence of the Justice Department.

More than 2,000 former Justice Department employees subsequently signed a public letter urging Barr to resign, and the head of the Federal Judges Association called an emergency meeting to discuss the situation.

Barr went on to intervene in the case of another former administration staffer, moving in May to drop charges against Michael Flynn. Trump's first national security adviser had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, but has now sought to reverse his conviction after claiming prosecutors mishandled his case.

"At the time, I thought that the handling of the Stone case, with senior officials intervening to recommend a lower sentence for a longtime ally of President Trump, was a disastrous mistake that the department would not make again," Jonathan Kravis, one of the prosecutors wrote, having left the Justice Department over the Stone decision. "I was wrong."

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently ruled that Judge Emmet Sullivan must accept the Department of Justice's decision. Sullivan this week asked for a review of the 2-1 decision by a full panel of the appeals court.

Stone's conviction was the last obtained in Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. At trial last September, prosecutors asserted Stone lied to Congress to protect Trump from embarrassment, making the president and his campaign a key component in their case.

In arguments and testimony, prosecutors revealed a series of phone calls at critical times in 2016 among Stone, Trump and some of the highest-ranking officials in the Trump campaign: Stephen Bannon, campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates.

Gates and Bannon testified that the campaign viewed Stone as a sort-of conduit to WikiLeaks who claimed - even before the Russian hacking was known - to have insider information. Gates testified that he overheard a phone call in which Trump seemed to discuss WikiLeaks with Stone, calling into question the president's assertion to Mueller's office that he did not remember talking about the organization with his longtime friend.

Prosecutors buttressed the witness testimony with call and message records, which they said helped show that Stone's claims to the House Intelligence Committee were false.

Stone's defense team urged jurors to treat his case as a referendum not on him but on Mueller's entire Russia investigation.

Stone's attorneys urged jurors to reframe the question from whether Stone lied to whether that mattered, asserting that his hectic efforts to get information from WikiLeaks never amounted to anything.

"So much of this case deals with that question that you need to ask . . . so what?" defense attorney Bruce Rogow said.

"There was nothing illegal about the campaign being interested in information that WikiLeaks was going to be sending out," Rogow said.

"If that's the state of affairs that we're in, I'm pretty shocked," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Marando told jurors in closing arguments, saying, "Truth matters. Truth still matters."

In Mueller's report, the special counsel included Trump's interactions with Stone among examples of potential obstruction. The report noted the during the investigation Trump commended Stone for having the "guts" to say that he would not testify against the President, and called his friend "very brave." Mueller said evidence supported the inference that Trump intended to signal that he would reward witnesses who could implicate him for their silence.

The Washington Post's Manuel Roig-Franzia and John Wagner contributed to this report.

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