His request to leave comes as the Justice Department said it would reduce its sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, a longtime confidant of President Trump, after top officials professed to be blindsided by the seven-to-nine-year penalty Zelinksky and other prosecutors urged a judge to impose.]
The Justice Department plans to reduce its sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, a longtime confidant of President Trump, after top officials professed to be blindsided by the seven-to-nine-year penalty prosecutors urged a judge to impose, a senior Justice Department official said Tuesday.
In a stunning rebuke of career prosecutors that immediately raised questions about political interference in the case, a senior Justice Department official said the department “was shocked to see the sentencing recommendation in the Roger Stone case last night.”
“That recommendation is not what had been briefed to the department,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive case. “The department finds the recommendation extreme and excessive and disproportionate to Stone’s offenses. The department will clarify its position later today.”
The statement came hours after Trump tweeted about the sentence prosecutors recommended, saying: “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!” The senior Justice Department official, though, said the decision to revise prosecutors’ recommendation came before Trump’s tweet.
Stone was convicted by a jury in November of obstructing Congress and witness tampering. His was the last conviction secured by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as part of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Stone has been a friend and adviser to Trump since the 1980s and was a key figure in his 2016 campaign, working to discover damaging information on Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Former Justice Department officials and those on the political left asserted the department’s abrupt shift on Stone was an egregious example of the president and his attorney general bending federal law enforcement to serve their political interests.
David Laufman, a former Justice Department official, called it a “shocking, cram-down political intervention” in the criminal justice process.
“We are now truly at a break-glass-in-case-of-fire moment for the Justice Dept.,” he wrote on Twitter.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) said the move amounted to “obstruction of justice.”
“We are seeing a full-frontal assault on the rule of law in America,” Pascrell said. “Direct political interference in our justice system is a hallmark of a banana republic. Despite whatever Trump, William Barr, and their helpers think, the United States is a nation of laws and not an authoritarian’s paradise.”
Attorney General William P. Barr has previously faced criticism for seeking to protect Trump and undercut the special counsel’s work.
In perhaps the most notable instance, he sent Congress a letter before public release of the special counsel’s report, describing what he called the investigation’s principal conclusions. Mueller, Barr wrote, did not find that the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election, and reached no conclusion on whether Trump had sought to obstruct justice. Barr wrote that he and then-Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein reviewed the matter and concluded there was insufficient evidence to make an obstruction case.
The bare-bones description so infuriated the special counsel’s team that Mueller wrote to Barr complaining that the attorney general’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the Russia probe. Barr, though, repeated his description at a news conference before Mueller’s full report was released, drawing criticism that he was trying to shape public opinion in a way favorable to Trump.
The senior Justice Department official said Barr had not spoken with Trump about the sentencing recommendation for Stone, nor had the attorney general been informed in advance of Trump’s tweet.
Mueller closed his office in May, though some members of his team stayed on as federal prosecutors in the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office to handle cases — including Stone’s — that were not resolved. People familiar with the matter say there was tension between them and their supervisors on what penalty to recommend.
As Monday’s court deadline neared for prosecutors to give a sentencing recommendation, it was still unclear what the office would do, after days of tense internal debates on the subject, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Front-line prosecutors, some previously from Mueller’s team, argued for a prison sentence on the higher end, while their bosses wanted to calculate the guidelines differently to get to a lower sentence. The debate centered around whether they should seek more prison time for obstruction that impedes the administration of justice, these people said.
In the end, the office filed a recommendation keeping with the line prosecutors’ goals, and rejecting the lighter recommendation sought by their superiors, the people said.
Hours before the filing was due Monday, the new head of the D.C. office, interim U.S. attorney Timothy Shea — a former close adviser to Barr — had not made a final decision on Stone’s sentencing recommendation, they said.
It was not clear what was told to Barr or other Justice Department leaders about the final recommendation. The senior official said they were led to believe it would be lighter than what was ultimately filed. But some legal observers were skeptical.
Mary McCord, a former prosecutor and acting assistant attorney general for the department’s National Security Division, said decisions related to the sentencing of such high-profile political figures would not be made without initial consultation between a U.S. attorney’s office and Justice Department headquarters, and that it was is hard to imagine the department was truly taken aback.
“There is no way you can come away from this with anything other than an impression that Justice is taking its orders from the president and pandering to the president,” said McCord, who was also chief of the criminal division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington. “This is causing lasting and long term damage to the department’s reputation and credibility”
Shea took over as the interim U.S. attorney in D.C. only last month. He succeeded Jessie K. Liu, who stepped down pending a White House nomination to serve as Treasury Department undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes.
While Liu’s nomination was announced Jan. 6, it was somewhat unusual that she departed before a Senate confirmation hearing was scheduled. Moreover, the selection of Shea to replace her was outside the norm, as it bypassed the office’s veteran principal assistant U.S. attorney, Alessio Evangelista. In the past, the principal assistant has often been elevated to serve as interim U.S. attorney.
It can be common for prosecutors to disagree about sentencing recommendations, especially when it comes to politically sensitive cases. It would have been unusual, however, for the U.S. attorney’s office to endorse a sentence below the guideline range after winning conviction at trial, according to former federal prosecutors.
In a 22-page filing, prosecutors Jonathan Kravis, Michael J. Marando, Adam C. Jed and Aaron S.J. Zelinksky wrote that a sentence of 87 to 108 months, “consistent with the applicable advisory Guidelines would accurately reflect the seriousness of [Stone’s] crimes and promote respect for the law.” Leaving a hearing in federal court in Washington, Jed and Kravis — who seemed to learn of the Justice Department’s shift in position from a reporter — declined to comment.
Kravis and Marando are part of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. Jed and Zelinsky were members of Mueller’s team now on special assignment to the office.
Stone’s defense on Monday asked for a sentence of probation, citing his age, 67, and lack of criminal history. They also noted that of seven Mueller defendants who have been sentenced, only one faces more than a six-month term: former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is serving 7½ years.
Given the hardships and loss of professional standing suffered by Stone and his family, “No one could seriously contend that a [reduced . . .] sentence would cause anyone to walk away from these proceedings believing that one can commit the offenses at issue here with impunity,” defense attorneys Bruce S. Rogow, Robert C. Buschel and Grant J. Smith wrote.
Federal guidelines typically call for a sentence ranging from 15 to 21 months for first-time offenders convicted of obstruction offenses, such as lying to Congress, making false statements and witness tampering, as Stone was.
The range ratchets up steeply, potentially to more than seven years in prison, if the offense involves other factors such as threatening physical injury or property damage to a witness; substantially interfering with the administration of justice; or the willful obstruction of justice. Each was cited by prosecutors.
A seven- to nine-year term “will send the message that tampering with a witness, obstructing justice, and lying in the context of a congressional investigation on matters of critical national importance are not crimes to be taken lightly,” prosecutors wrote.
Prosecutors in another case brought by the special counsel’s office, against Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, also recently walked back a sentencing recommendation — though the move was subtle.
In early January, prosecutors recommended that Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., be sentenced “within the Guidelines range” of zero to six months in prison. But in another filing just weeks later, they made clear they agreed with Flynn “that a sentence of probation is a reasonable.”
Prosecutors did not explain in the later filing why they emphasized probation as a reasonable sentence for Flynn. Both documents were signed by career prosecutors — Brandon L. Van Grack and Jocelyn Ballantine — though Van Grack has not signed some later filings in the case. Flynn is now seeking to withdraw his guilty plea, alleging a variety of government misconduct.
Barr has been critical of the FBI’s 2016 investigation into Trump’s campaign that Mueller ultimately took over. When the Justice Department inspector general found last year that the bureau had adequate cause to open the case, Barr issued a remarkable public statement registering his disagreement. He said the case was initiated “on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken.”
“It is also clear that, from its inception, the evidence produced by the investigation was consistently exculpatory,” he added.
Barr has tasked the U.S. Attorney in Connecticut with exploring the origins of the case, and current and former law enforcement officials have expressed concern that it might be an effort to undercut an investigation because Trump did not like it.