MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime political confidant Roger Stone on Friday.
It happened just days before he was set to report to prison. Democrats denounced the move as just another in a series of unprecedented interventions by the president in the nation’s justice system.
Stone had been sentenced in February to three years and four months in prison for lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election. He was set to report to prison by Tuesday.
Stone told The Associated Press that Trump had called him earlier Friday to inform him of the commutation. Stone was celebrating in Fort Lauderdale, with conservative friends and said he had to change rooms because there were “too many people opening bottles of Champagne here.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called Stone a “victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media.”
“Not only was Mr. Stone charged by overzealous prosecutors pursing a case that never should have existed, and arrested in an operation that never should have been approved, but there were also serious questions about the jury in the case,” she said in a statement.
A commutation does not erase Stone’s felony convictions in the same way a pardon would, but it would protect him from serving prison time as a result.
Democrats were angered by Trump’s decision, with House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff calling it “offensive to the rule of law and principles of justice,” and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez asking, “Is there any power Trump won’t abuse?”
The action, which Trump had foreshadowed in recent days, reflects his lingering rage over the Russia investigation and is a testament to his conviction that he and his associates were mistreated by agents and prosecutors. His administration has been eager to rewrite the narrative of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, with Trump’s own Justice Department moving in May to dismiss the criminal case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Stone told the AP that the president did not mention the statuses of Flynn or his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, also ensnared in the Russia probe.
Stone, for his part, had been open about his desire for a pardon or commutation, appealing for the president’s help in a series of Instagram posts in which he maintained that his life could be in jeopardy if imprisoned during a pandemic. He had recently sought to postpone his surrender date by months after getting a brief extension from the judge.
Trump had repeatedly publicly inserted himself into Stone’s case, including just before Stone’s sentencing, when he suggested in a tweet that Stone was being subjected to a different standard than several prominent Democrats. He railed that the conviction “should be thrown out” and called the Justice Department’s initial sentencing recommendation “horrible and very unfair.”
“Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” he wrote.
Schiff said the commutation showed the corruption of the Trump administration.
“With this commutation, Trump makes clear that there are two systems of justice in America: one for his criminal friends, and one for everyone else,” he said. “Donald Trump, Bill Barr, and all those who enable them pose the gravest of threats to the rule of law.”
Stone, a larger-than-life political character who embraced his reputation as a dirty trickster, was the sixth Trump aide or adviser to have been convicted of charges brought as part of Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
A longtime Trump friend and informal adviser, Stone had boasted during the campaign that he was in contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange through a trusted intermediary and hinted at inside knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans to release more than 19,000 emails hacked from the servers of the Democratic National Committee.
But Stone denied any wrongdoing and consistently criticized the case against him as politically motivated. He did not take the stand during his trial, did not speak at his sentencing, and his lawyers did not call any witnesses in his defense.
Trump also targeted those involved in the case. He retweeted a comment by Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano that the jury appeared to have been biased against Trump, and called out Judge Amy Berman Jackson by name, saying “almost any judge in the country” would throw out the conviction.
The tweets continued even after Trump earned a public rebuke from his own attorney general, William Barr, who said the president’s comments were “making it impossible” for him to do his job. Barr was so incensed that he told people he was considering resigning over the matter.
Prosecutors had originally recommended Stone serve seven to nine years in federal prison. But, in a highly unusual move, Barr reversed that decision after a Trump tweet and recommended a more lenient punishment, prompting a mini-revolt inside the Justice Department, with the entire prosecution team resigning from the case.
Department officials have vehemently denied Barr was responding to Trump’s criticism and have insisted there was no contact with the White House over the decision. Barr has also pointed out that the judge, in imposing a 40-month sentence, had agreed with him that the original sentencing recommendation was excessive.
Barr, who was attorney general during Stone’s trial last fall, has said the prosecution was justified, and the Justice Department did not support Stone’s more recent effort to put off his surrender date. Though the Justice Department raised concerns about the handling of Flynn’s case, including what it said were irregularities about his FBI interview, prosecutors did not point to any similar issues or problems with the Stone prosecution.
Even so, the pardon will almost certainly contribute to the portrait of a president determined — particularly in an election year — to undo the effects of a Russia investigation that has shadowed his administration from the outset, and to intervene on behalf of political allies.
Trump, meanwhile, had long kept the door open to a reprieve.
“You’re going to see what happens. Let’s see what happens,” he said when asked in February whether Stone deserved prison time, adding, “Somebody has to stick up for the people.”
He told Sean Hannity in an interview Thursday night that it was a “disgrace they didn’t give him a retrial.” Asked if he was considering a pardon, he added: “I am always thinking.”
That language prompted preemptive rebuke from House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, who tweeted after the sentencing that “to pardon Stone when his crimes were committed to protect Trump would be a breathtaking act of corruption.”
The commutation was the latest example of Trump using his unlimited clemency power to pardon powerful men he believes have been mistreated by the justice system.
Trump went on a clemency spree in February commuting the 14-year prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, and pardoning former New York City police commissioner Bernie Kerik, financier Michael Milken and several others.
Trump has also offered clemency to other political allies, including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was awaiting sentencing at the time, conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who had been convicted on campaign finance violations, and Conrad Black, a newspaper publisher convicted of fraud who had written a flattering book about the president.
Trump, however, has spent much more time trumpeting his decision to commute the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, who was serving life in prison for nonviolent drug offenses and who came to Trump’s attention after reality star Kim Kardashian West took up her cause. Her story was featured in a Trump campaign Super Bowl ad.
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)