by Spencer S. Hsu
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump has commuted the sentence of his former aide and longtime confidant Roger Stone, who was convicted at trial last year of obstructing a congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
In a statement released shortly before 8 p.m., White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, “Roger Stone is 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.”
While the statement recited a litany of Trump supporters’ complaints about Stone’s “unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial,” the commutation leaves Stone’s conviction standing. Unlike a pardon, which would have absolved the GOP operative of any wrongdoing, the White House action only lifted Stone’s punishment, a 40-month prison sentence set to begin Tuesday.
In so doing, the White House cited said Stone’s age, saying it would put him at medical risk in prison while he continues his appeals.
The White House statement said Stone “maintains his innocence and has stated that he expects to be fully exonerated by the justice system.”
“Mr. Stone, like every American, deserves a fair trial and every opportunity to vindicate himself before the courts. The President does not wish to interfere with his efforts to do so,” the White House statement said.
Stone’s attorney Grant Smith said in a statement that Stone and his wife “appreciate all the consideration the President gave to this matter.”
“Mr. Stone is incredibly honored that President Trump used his awesome and unique power under the Constitution of the United States for this act of mercy,” Smith said.
The president signaled his intentions on Twitter last month, saying Stone “was a victim of a corrupt and illegal Witch Hunt” and “can sleep well at night!” President Trump then told reporters Friday that he is “looking at” pardoning Stone, as he continued to build suspense over whether he will intervene before Stone is scheduled to report to prison next week.
“Well, I’ll be looking at it,” Trump said Friday, before traveling to south Florida for events including a fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale where Stone is living. “I think Roger Stone was very unfairly untreated, as were many people.”
Stone, 67, was sentenced to three years and four months in prison after being convicted of seven felony counts including lying about his attempts to get details from Hillary Clinton’s private emails from the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, then threatening a witness who could contradict his story.
He had been ordered to report to prison by July 14. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson had given Stone a two-week delay to quarantine before traveling from south Florida to the prison Jessup, Ga. But she denied the two month reprieve that Stone had requested with prosecutors’ assent.
An appeals court Friday evening also rejected Stone’s attorneys’ renewed request for a delay in his prison reporting date, ruling they had failed to show why the reporting date was inappropriate or that he was likely to win an appeal for a new trial or reduced sentence. Stone’s defense earlier Friday, echoing Trump’s attacks against Stone’s treatment by prosecutors, argued that 20 inmates at Jesup have tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks, up from zero, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Stone has argued the judge and jury in his case were biased against him. Jackson rejected that claim in April, saying Stone’s argument that the forewoman’s anti-Trump political views rendered the verdict against him invalid “is not supported by any facts or data and it is contrary to controlling legal precedent.” Stone appealed her ruling to a higher court.
The Trump administration’s intervention in Stone’s case has roiled the Justice Department and the federal judiciary. Trump has repeatedly attacked the prosecutors, judge and jury. Trump also sent tweets suggesting that “everyone” involved in prosecuting the case could be sued.
Attorney General William Barr on Thursday defended Stone’s prosecution and prison sentence, telling ABC News in an interview, “I think the prosecution was righteous and I think the sentence the judge ultimately gave was fair.”
All four of the prosecutors who handled the case withdrew after Barr publicly overruled their recommendation that Stone serve seven to nine years in prison. The suggestion of a more lenient sentence came after Trump complained about the initial recommendation, raising questions about White House interference in the independence of the Justice Department.
More than 2,000 former Justice Department employees subsequently signed a public letter urging Barr to resign, and the head of the Federal Judges Association called an emergency meeting to discuss the situation.
Barr went on to intervene in the case of another former administration staffer, moving in May to drop charges against Michael Flynn. Trump’s first national security adviser had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, but has now sought to reverse his conviction after claiming prosecutors mishandled his case.
“At the time, I thought that the handling of the Stone case, with senior officials intervening to recommend a lower sentence for a longtime ally of President Trump, was a disastrous mistake that the department would not make again,” Jonathan Kravis, one of the prosecutors wrote, having left the Justice Department over the Stone decision. “I was wrong.”
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently ruled that Judge Emmet Sullivan must accept the Department of Justice’s decision. Sullivan this week asked for a review of the 2-1 decision by a full panel of the appeals court.
Stone’s conviction was the last obtained in special counsel Robert Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. At trial last September, prosecutors asserted Stone lied to Congress to protect Trump from embarrassment, making the president and his campaign a key component in their case.
In arguments and testimony, prosecutors revealed a series of phone calls at critical times in 2016 among Stone, Trump and some of the highest-ranking officials in the Trump campaign: Stephen Bannon, campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates.
Gates and Bannon testified that the campaign viewed Stone as a sort-of conduit to WikiLeaks who claimed – even before the Russian hacking was known – to have insider information. Gates testified that he overheard a phone call in which Trump seemed to discuss WikiLeaks with Stone, calling into question the president’s assertion to Mueller’s office that he did not remember talking about the organization with his longtime friend.
Prosecutors buttressed the witness testimony with call and message records, which they said helped show that Stone’s claims to the House Intelligence Committee were false.
Stone’s defense team urged jurors to treat his case as a referendum not on him but on Mueller’s entire Russia investigation.
Stone’s attorneys urged jurors to reframe the question from whether Stone lied to whether that mattered, asserting that his hectic efforts to get information from WikiLeaks never amounted to anything.
“So much of this case deals with that question that you need to ask . . . so what?” defense attorney Bruce Rogow said.
“There was nothing illegal about the campaign being interested in information that WikiLeaks was going to be sending out,” Rogow said.
“If that’s the state of affairs that we’re in, I’m pretty shocked,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Marando told jurors in closing arguments, saying, “Truth matters. Truth still matters.”
In Mueller’s report, the special counsel included Trump’s interactions with Stone among examples of potential obstruction. The report noted the during the investigation Trump commended Stone for having the “guts” to say that he would not testify against the President, and called his friend “very brave.” Mueller said evidence supported the inference that Trump intended to signal that he would reward witnesses who could implicate him for their silence.
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The Washington Post’s Toluse Olorunnipa and John Wagner contributed to this report.