Donald Trump has commuted the prison sentence of Roger Stone, a confidante and self-described political “dirty trickster” in a Friday evening move that sparked widespread anger from Democrats.
Mr Stone, one of several allies of the president convicted of crimes over the past two years, was found guilty in February of lying to Congress and engaging in witness tampering to protect Mr Trump.
In a reference to the investigation led by former special prosecutor Robert Mueller, the White House said Mr Stone, was 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”.
“Roger Stone was treated very unfairly,” Mr Trump told reporters on Saturday.
“Roger Stone was brought into this witch hunt, this whole political witch hunt and the Mueller scam … and he was treated very unfairly, just like General [Michael] Flynn is treated unfairly, just like [George] Papadopoulos was treated unfairly.”
Mr Stone’s conviction was related to an effort to serve as a backchannel to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, which released Democratic documents obtained by hackers during the 2016 race.
Mr Stone had petitioned a court to postpone the start of his sentence over concerns about coronavirus in the prison system, but was rebuffed.
The White House said Mr Stone would have been “at serious medical risk” in prison. It said Mr Trump had not wanted to “interfere” but “in light of the egregious facts and circumstances surrounding his unfair prosecution, arrest and trial”, the president had commuted his sentence. It concluded: “Roger Stone is now a free man!”
Mitt Romney, a Utah senator and former Republican presidential nominee, described the commutation as “historic corruption”.
“Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president,” Mr Romney tweeted on Saturday morning.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, also described the move as “an act of staggering corruption”.
Adam Schiff, the Democratic head of the House intelligence committee who led the impeachment inquiry into Mr Trump, said Mr Stone had “repeatedly lied” to Congress.
“President Trump has engaged in countless acts that are both self-serving and destructive to our democracy while in office, but commuting the sentence of Roger Stone, a crony who lied and obstructed our investigation to protect Trump himself, is among the most offensive to the rule of law and principles of justice,” he said.
The campaign for Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, also lambasted the decision to commute the sentence.
“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,” said a campaign spokesperson.
The flamboyant operative, who worked for Richard Nixon and has a tattoo of the deceased president on his back, had openly campaigned for a reprieve from Mr Trump. Mr Stone was once a lobbying partner of Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager, who was sentenced to prison last year for crimes unrelated to the campaign.
Manafort was last year sentenced to 47 months in prison after being convicted of bank and tax fraud related to his former work in Ukraine. But the 71-year-old was released from prison in May and allowed to serve the rest of his sentence at home because of the Covid-19 situation.
Another former Trump confidante, his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty in 2018 to campaign finance violations related to the payment to two women who claimed to have had sexual relations with Mr Trump, including Stormy Daniels, a former porn star.
Cohen was also released from prison to home confinement in May because of concerns about coronavirus. But he was returned to prison this week after refusing to comply with conditions that prison officials insisted be imposed on him, including barring him from publishing a book about his time with Mr Trump, which is almost complete.
On Saturday, Mr Trump called on Christopher Steele, the British former MI6 officer who wrote the 2016 dossier on Mr Trump’s ties to Russia, to be extradited to the US and jailed. Mr Steele has not been charged with a crime.
“This man should be extradited, tried, and thrown into jail. A sick lier who was paid by Crooked Hillary & the DNC!” Trump tweeted.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi