Trump acted just after a federal appeals court panel denied a last-ditch bid by Stone to delay an order for him to surrender at a federal prison in Jesup, Ga. next Tuesday. Stone claimed he suffered from health conditions that put him at serious risk of dying if he went to that prison, which is experiencing a coronavirus outbreak.
Trump’s move to protect a close ally from a conviction stemming from a probe that also included an investigation of Trump’s own conduct quickly set off explosive recriminations in the Democratically controlled House, where leaders have long said clemency for Trump’s inner circle would amount to obstruction of justice. It also comes despite Attorney General Bill Barr’s declaration that Stone’s prosecution was “righteous” and that his sentence was fair.
“Stone repeatedly lied to the House Intelligence Committee under oath and threatened a witness, all to cover up an effort by President Trump and his campaign to secretly communicate with Wikileaks and exploit its release of Russian-hacked emails targeting his opponent,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said in a statement. “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.”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney said they intended to immediately seek a briefing from the White House counsel about the circumstances of Stone’s commutation.
Trump’s involvement in the case prior to Friday — criticizing the initial sentence proposed by prosecutors, attacking the judge and jury in the case — had already prompted howls of outrage from Democrats, accusations of self-dealing and warnings from Justice Department veterans about an effort to shatter the justice system’s independence to benefit the president.
The White House’s statement Friday did not explicitly mention that six of the seven felonies Stone was convicted of pertained solely to efforts to deceive Congress. The official explanation of the commutation also asserted that Stone would never have been prosecuted if Mueller had not been appointed.
The statement also minimized the charges Stone faced, calling them “process-based” and suggesting that they weren’t necessarily crimes at all. Rather, per the White House, they were leveled “to manufacture the false impression of criminality lurking below the surface.”
“‘The Special Counsel’s Office resorted to process-based charges leveled at high-profile people in an attempt to manufacture the false impression of criminality lurking below the surface. These charges were the product of recklessness borne of frustration and malice,” the statement said. “The simple fact is that if the Special Counsel had not been pursuing an absolutely baseless investigation, Mr. Stone would not be facing time in prison.”
Trump’s move follows a frantic effort by Stone to keep himself out of jail, contending in a series of recent court filings that the coronavirus outbreak presented a life-threatening risk. But the federal judge in his case, Amy Berman Jackson, rejected his push to delay his sentence deeper into the summer and ordered him to prison on July 14, noting that his sentence — imposed in April — had already been postponed for months.
While the timing of a pardon for Stone has been the subject of speculation for some time, there has been little doubt that Trump would grant some form of clemency if it appeared Stone needed that to avoid prison.
“Roger was a victim of a corrupt and illegal Witch Hunt, one which will go down as the greatest political crime in history. He can sleep well at night!” Trump tweeted last month.
Stone supporters insisted in advance of the commutation that there was little political risk in granting clemency to Stone, but potentially serious trouble with Trump’s base if he was seen as abandoning his outspoken ally.
However, Trump appeared to hold out hope until recently that such a pardon might not be necessary because Stone would be vindicated through post-trial motions or appeals. He’s taken a similar approach to charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn, whose legal battle against a false statements charge has played out for years, even as Trump has assailed the prosecution.
“I want the process to play out,” the president said following Stone’s sentencing in February. “I would love to see Roger exonerated.”
By granting a commutation to Stone rather than an outright pardon, Trump allows his longtime adviser and confidant to continue with his appeal of his convictions.
For Trump, a commutation serves two additional purposes: protecting a close political ally who was deeply tied to his campaign’s effort to promote WikiLeaks’ hacked emails from the Clinton campaign and casting doubt on the subsequent investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election by Mueller. Trump has assailed the probe since its May 2017 onset, and now he’s poised to absolve the allies who defended him throughout it.
Stone’s case, though, presented a complicated calculus. Many in Trump’s inner circle have no love for the longtime political provocateur, and Stone aggravated matters throughout his legal process, at one point posting incendiary social media posts about the judge, earning a stiff gag order for months. As late as June, prosecutors said they considered Stone a public safety risk for his violent rhetoric, and the judge, in her decision to send Stone to jail on Tuesday indicated his pre- and post-trial behavior was part of the consideration.
After his sentencing, Stone sought to invalidate the trial altogether by claiming that the jury’s foreperson espoused hostile political views. Jackson held a hearing on the matter and interviewed the juror, plus a colleague, but said Stone failed to present any evidence that the juror had failed to act impartially. Rather, she said, a person’s political views have no bearing on whether they’re able to perform jury service, as long as they set those views aside to weigh evidence.
Despite the backlash, there is some fairly recent precedent for acts of clemency like the one Trump granted Friday. Both President Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush pardoned allies who faced charges brought by special prosecutors who had investigated those presidents. Neither, however, took the politically explosive step in the middle of their reelection campaign.
And Trump has wielded the pardon power in other, more overtly political ways than his predecessor. For example, Trump pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio in August 2017 despite Arpaio’s ongoing legal battle against a contempt of court order. The move was widely seen as a boost to a beleaguered political ally who is beloved by Trump’s base. In 2018, Trump also pardoned former Dick Cheney aide Scooter Libby, who was convicted in 2007 of obstruction of justice. The move occurred almost precisely a year before Mueller released his final report, which offered significant evidence that Trump himself sought to obstruct the investigation.
Nothing would prevent Trump from issuing a full pardon to Stone later as long as he remains in office.
The president’s power to issue pardons and commutations is found in the Constitution and remains largely unchecked. A few legal scholars have suggested courts might not recognize a Trump pardon seen as aimed at avoiding his own culpability for wrongdoing, but challenging such an act of clemency would be a longshot. It’s also unclear who would have legal standing to raise the issue.
Stone declined to take the stand in his own defense at his trial last November, but during an epic deposition earlier this year in connection with several civil lawsuits, he insisted he never discussed the hacked Clinton camp emails or other WikiLeaks disclosures with Trump.
“I’ve never spoken to him about WikiLeaks,” Stone said, adding of his conversations with Trump: “None of them regard WikiLeaks. There was no evidence of that presented during the trial. It was an assertion by the government, but that does not make it true.”
Trump’s decision came following an extraordinary intervention in his case earlier this year by Barr that led to an uproar within the Justice Department and complaints that Barr was doing favors for the president’s friends.
After prosecutors filed a sentencing memorandum calling for Stone to receive between seven and nine years in prison, Trump decried the proposal in a late-night tweet as “horrible and very unfair,” adding: “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”
Within hours, the Justice Department told reporters that there was a foul-up related to the filing and that a new sentencing proposal would be forthcoming. It withdrew the seven-to-nine-year recommendation and instead urged the court to impose a more lenient sentence.
The move led the four career prosecutors who handled Stone’s trial to quit the case in protest. One of the four resigned outright. In a sign of the internal strife over the issue, the revised recommendation to the judge bore only the name of the acting U.S. Attorney, Timothy Shea — a former aide Barr had installed in the post a less than two weeks earlier.
For his part, Barr insisted that he did not change the sentencing recommendation for Stone because of Trump’s tweet but had already resolved to do so before the president signaled his displeasure. Nonetheless, Trump praised Barr for “taking charge” of the case.
Barr’s handling of the episode led more than 1,100 former prosecutors and Justice Department officials to sign a petition calling on the attorney general to resign. While Barr defended his conduct as proper, he seemed to recognize that his authority within the department was being eroded by the appearance that he was allowing Trump to influence prosecutorial decisions.
In a remarkable development, Barr appeared to threaten to resign if Trump did not stop commenting publicly on the department’s pending cases.
However, Trump spoke or tweeted about such matters more than 100 times in the ensuing weeks. No resignation was forthcoming and Barr soon assuming a leading role for the administration in efforts to impose “law and order” to combat civil unrest that broke out following the killing of African-American motorist George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Stone was set to report to prison by June 30, but last month asked the judge who oversaw his case to delay his reporting date until early September because of the dangers of coronavirus in prison. However, Jackson instead ordered Stone into home detention at his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., residence and instructed him to quarantine and report to prison on July 14.
The judge’s move prompted more calls among Trump allies for the president to pardon Stone and head off the possibility that he serve prison time.