A polarised Washington DC is reeling after the US Justice Department reversed its decision to sentence political strategist Roger Stone to nine years in prison – a reversal made after President Donald Trump criticised the length of the sentence on Twitter.
Trump lauded his Attorney General William Barr, who heads the Justice Department, for reducing the sentence of Stone, an action that caused all four of the career prosecutors who oversaw Stone’s conviction to withdraw from the case in protest. Barr and Stone are both Trump’s allies.
The revision of Stone’s recommended sentence is the latest salvo in a vicious fight that is consuming America ahead of the presidential elections in November.
Stone, a self-described “agent provocateur” who sports a larger-than-lifesize tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back, was convicted of lying to congress about his activities in the lead-up to Trump’s 2016 electoral victory. On Monday, the four prosecutors leading the case against Stone recommended a nine-year sentence.
After hearing the news, Trump, apparently emboldened by his impeachment acquittal last week, and already moving to purge his administration of those who criticised him during the hearings, rushed to Stone’s defence.
“This is a horrible and very unfair situation,” he wrote on Twitter in the early hours of Tuesday morning. “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”
Later that day, a senior official in the US Justice Department undid the earlier sentencing recommendation, saying in a five-page memo that “the prior filing… does not accurately reflect the Department of Justice’s position on what would be a reasonable sentence in this matter”.
Stone is yet to be sentenced, but on Wednesday afternoon, Trump declined to deny the possibility he might pardon Stone altogether.
What was the reaction?
“Although the Justice Department is nested within the executive branch, presidents and attorneys general have traditionally taken great pains to make sure there is no appearance of improper political influence over prosecutorial decisions,” notes Time magazine.
This week, the Justice Department insisted the decision to reduce Stone’s sentence was made independently of Trump’s support of him and before the president tweeted about Stone, reports The Daily Beast.
Trump also said: “I didn’t speak to the Justice – I would be able to – and I have the absolute right to do it if I wanted to, but I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn’t believe.”
Nevertheless, the sequence of events has led Trump’s critics to cry foul: clearly, they say, a convicted man is receiving a light sentence because of his personal ties to the president.
Senator Elizabeth Warren was the first of the Democratic presidential candidates to voice these concerns. “Donald Trump is shredding the rule of law in this country,” she said. “His AG overruled career prosecutors to reduce the sentence for his buddy Roger Stone after Stone committed crimes to protect him.
“Abusing official power to protect political friends and attack opponents is common in authoritarian regimes like Putin’s Russia. Trump and Barr’s conduct has no place in our democracy.”
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What else has happened since Trump was acquitted?
Warren appeared to be referring to the firing of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland. Their dismissals came late last week, and were the latest controversy in Washington before Stone’s sentence reversal stole their place at the top of the news cycle.
Vindman and Sondland both gave evidence that counted against Trump during the impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives. Their removal – in Vindman’s case he was escorted from the White House by security guards – and now the protection of Stone, paint a picture of a president emboldened after his acquittal on impeachment charges by the Senate, say critics.
“Far from denying Operation Vengeance, the White House has been justifying it,” says The New York Times. “In the run-up to the president’s acquittal address last Thursday, the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, assured Fox News viewers that he would be talking about ‘just how horribly he was treated and, you know, that maybe people should pay for that.’ Mr. Trump is now hard at work making that happen. And who’s to stop him?”
In what seems to be a continuation of his policy of retribution, on Tuesday, Trump suddenly and without justification withdrew the nomination of Jessie Liu for a top Treasury department post. Liu oversaw the prosecution of Stone as US Attorney for the District of Columbia.
Acting swiftly, the House Judiciary Committee confirmed yesterday that Attorney General Barr had agreed to testify on 31 March, giving them a forum to question him on the sentencing of Stone, reports CNN.
In the letter they sent to Barr, the committee said: “In your tenure as Attorney General, you have engaged in a pattern of conduct in legal matters relating to the President that raises significant concerns for this Committee. In the past week alone, you have taken steps that raise grave questions about your leadership of the Department of Justice.”
The letter goes on to detail the withdrawal of Liu’s nomination, and Barr’s decision to overrule his own prosecutors to reduce the recommended sentence of Roger Stone as reasons for their concerns.
“In the span of 48 hours this week, the president has sought to protect his friends and punish his foes, even at the risk of compromising the Justice Department’s independence and integrity,” summarises The Washington Post. “A stance that his defenders see as entirely justified.”