The four lawyers who prosecuted Roger Stone, President Donald Trump’s longtime ally and confidant, quit the case on Tuesday after the Justice Department overruled them and said it would take the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek for Stone.
The four attorneys, including two who were early members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia team, comprised the entire Justice Department trial team that won convictions against Stone last fall.
Each had signed onto a Monday sentencing memo that recommended between seven and nine years in prison for Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election. None lent their names to a Tuesday memo that called the original recommendation excessive.
It is extremely rare for Justice Department leaders to reverse the decision of its own prosecutors on a sentencing recommendation, particularly after that recommendation has been submitted to the court. A mass exodus from a case is also rare.
In the initial memorandum on Monday, prosecutors asked for Stone to serve between 87 and 108 months in federal prison, which they said was consistent with federal guidelines. Such a sentence would send a message to deter others who might consider lying or obstructing a congressional probe or tampering with witnesses, they said.
The prosecutors wrote that “Stone’s actions were not a one-off mistake in judgement” and that he “decided to double — and triple — down on his criminal conduct by tampering with a witness for months in order to make sure his obstruction would be successful.”
The prosecutors’ unexpected resignations on Tuesday raised immediate questions over whether Trump, who blasted the original sentencing recommendations “very horrible and unfair,” had at least indirectly exerted his will on the Justice Department.
Attorney General William Barr, the Justice Department’s leader, has been a steady ally — as in puppet — of the president since taking the position. His department insisted the decision to undo the sentencing recommendation was made Monday night — before Trump’s tweet.
Trump doubled down late Tuesday, slamming the original sentencing recommendation and questioning the judge overseeing the Stone case. By early Wednesday, he had tweeted his congratulations to Barr “for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have been brought,” suggesting the prosecutors had gone rogue.
It’s unclear what sentence the department will ultimately seek — a new sentencing memo filed Tuesday evening indicated that the original recommendation was too harsh but proposed no specific punishment of its own. Barr, we suspect, is waiting for further instructions from the White House to avoid any hint that he, too, has “gone rogue.”
Fortunately, sentencing decisions are ultimately up to the judge, who in this case may — and hopefully will — side with the original recommendation. It was a recommendation based on federal guidelines, not political cronyism.