The team of four career federal prosecutors who won felony convictions against Donald Trump’s associate Roger Stone all withdrew from the case on Tuesday, as the Department of Justice revised its own sentencing recommendation to ask for more lenient treatment of Stone—hours after the president tweeted that the original sentencing request, for seven to nine years in prison, was “horrible and very unfair.” The news appeared to mark the direct political use of the Justice Department, under Attorney General William Barr, to shield a Trump ally who was convicted of lying on the president’s behalf.
Stone was convicted in November of seven felony counts including lying to Congress, obstruction of Congress, and witness tampering.* Prosecutors made the case that he committed his crimes to protect Trump from political embarrassment. There were indications during the trial that Stone had conveyed to Trump that he had inside information about the WikiLeaks publication of emails from Democratic officials that were hacked by Russia and eventually used as part of Trump’s campaign to defeat Hillary Clinton.
One witness, former Trump campaign official Rick Gates, testified that he was in a car with Trump in July 2016 when he overheard a phone call between Stone and Trump and that Trump afterwards “indicated that there was more information coming” from the hacks. Stone was prosecuted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference and whether any Trump campaign officials had conspired with Russians or other foreign actors, which Mueller reported he could not ultimately prove.
After months of speculation that Trump might pardon Stone—whose career as a self-styled dirty tricks expert for Republicans goes back to the Richard Nixon era—the possible sentencing intervention would be an aggressive use of executive power, from a president newly acquitted by the Senate on impeachment counts of abuse of office and obstruction of Congress.
On Monday, prosecutors who had worked with Mueller had advocated for a sentence of seven to nine years in prison, claiming that Stone’s crimes demanded sentence enhancements because he threatened a witness with physical violence and impeded the administration of justice. (The witness in question said that he did not take the threat of violence seriously.) Overnight, Trump tweeted his displeasure about the recommendation: “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!”
On Tuesday, in a series of court filings, all four members of the prosecution team removed themselves from the case, with one resigning from the department altogether and Timothy Shea—a longtime adviser to Barr and newly minted interim U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia—issuing a new recommendation. The original sentencing recommendation, Shea wrote, “does not accurately reflect the Department of Justice’s position on what would be a reasonable sentence in this matter” and “could be considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances.”
The substitute request asked Judge Amy Berman Jackson to determine “what specific sentence is appropriate under the facts and circumstances of this case” and noted that a sentence of three to four years would be more “typical.” The memo also asked that the judge “consider the defendant’s advanced age, health, personal circumstances, and lack of criminal history in fashioning an appropriate sentence”—a request more typical of defense counsel than of prosecutors.
As the new, more lenient recommendation was issued, the prosecutors behind the original one filed papers to step aside. Jonathan Kravis told the court that he had “resigned as an Assistant United States Attorney and therefore no longer represents the government in the matter.” Similarly, Aaron S.J. Zelinsky withdrew from the case and informed the court that he had resigned from a temporary position as a special assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. (The Washington Post reported that a department spokeswoman said he would retain his position as an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore). Adam C. Jed also withdrew from the case, as did Michael J. Morando.
Democrats denounced the move. House Intelligence Committee Chairman and lead House impeachment manager Adam Schiff said the change was in keeping with “the gravest threat to the rule of law in America in a generation.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter to DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz saying that the “situation has all the indicia of improper political interference in a criminal prosecution” and asking that Horowitz “conduct an expedited review of this urgent matter and issue a public report with your findings and recommendations as soon as possible.”
Trump claimed on Tuesday afternoon that he “didn’t speak” to the Department of Justice about the situation, adding “I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn’t believe.”
Stone’s sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 20. In addition to determining the sentence, Judge Amy Berman Jackson could ask Zelinsky, Jed, Kravis, and Morando to explain why they withdrew from the case. In a previous rift between career government attorneys and the Trump administration, in July of last year, Judge Jesse Furman barred DOJ lawyers from withdrawing from the administration’s defense of its attempt to add a citizenship question to the census until they explained the reason for their departures and why those departures wouldn’t hamper the case.
Correction, Feb. 13, 2020: This post originally misstated that Stone was convicted in October. He was convicted in November.