WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime confidant Roger Stone, a Republican operative convicted of lying to Congress to protect the president’s campaign from an investigation into Russian election interference.
The White House announced Trump’s decision late Friday, days before Stone was set to report to prison for a 40-month sentence handed down in February, a stunning outcome for a well-knownconsultant who advised political campaigns for decades.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany described Stone as “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.”
But congressional Democrats slammed the move, the latest in series of instances in which the president has wielded his broad clemency powers in highly political criminal cases. The grant, which wiped out Stone’s sentence but left his conviction in place, brought the years-long battle over Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election back to the forefront in the middle of Trump’s bid for reelection.
Stone was the last person charged in the nearly two-year probe by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a leading figure in the congressional Russia investigation, said Stone repeatedly lied to the House Intelligence Committee that Schiff chairs.
“Stone knew that telling the truth about his interactions with senior campaign officials and Trump himself would expose the president’s eagerness to obtain foreign help,” Schiff said. “So he lied.”
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that while “the United States was founded on the rule of law” it seemed that Trump “has nothing but contempt for it.”
The Justice Department declined to comment on Trump’s decision Friday.
Grant Smith, an attorney for Stone, said his client was “incredibly honored” that Trump used “his awesome and unique power under the Constitution of the United States for this act of mercy.”
The Justice Department told a federal appeals court this week that Stone should begin his sentence July 14, despite his plea to delay it over concerns about the coronavirus. Hours later, the president presaged his decision during an interview with the conservative news organization Newsmax.
“He was framed. He was treated horribly,” Trump said of Stone. “His prayer may be answered.”
Trump’s decision follows a public dispute with Attorney General William Barr in February over the president’s public remarks about criminal cases. Trump railed against the Justice Department for recommending Stone serve up to nine years, describing the initial recommendation as a “miscarriage of justice.”
Justice officials backed away from that tougher sentence.
That reaction prompted an outcry from critics of the Trump administration who say the president is making inappropriate forays into criminal cases.
Robert Litt, a lawyer for Aaron Zelinsky – one of the attorneys who prosecuted Stone but later quit the case in protest after the Justice Department backtracked from the tougher sentence – did not comment on the clemency.
But Litt said Zelinsky “stands by his testimony” before the House Judiciary Committee and the findings of the Mueller investigation. Zelinsky testified last month that the Justice Department gave Stone “unprecedentedly favorable treatment” because he’s a friend of the president.
Trump has granted clemency in a series of political cases. In February, he commuted the prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, and granted pardons to former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, rogue financier Michael Milken and former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr.
Trump for years has offered vague answers to questions about whether he would use his sweeping clemency powers to help allies and former employees ensnared by the Russian investigations, which he has collectively dismissed as a “hoax.”
In handing down Stone’s sentence this year, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said the GOP consultant “took it upon himself to lie, to impede, to obstruct before the investigation was complete, in an endeavor to influence the result.”
Stone was found guilty in November of lying to Congress and obstructing the Russia investigation. The 67-year-old GOP operative was one of several Trump associates to be convicted in cases stemming from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“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,” the White House said in a statement.
The president had previously granted 25 pardons – full legal forgiveness for a crime – and 10 commutations, which shortens a sentence. Though that clemency has often been aimed at conservative figures such as Joe Arpaio, a former sheriff in Arizona, and commentator Dinesh D’Souza, the decision on Stone represents the first time Trump has circumvented the justice system in a case directly tied to himself.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, both New York Democrats, asserted in a joint statement that the commutation undermines the rule of law.
“By this action, President Trump abused the powers of his office in an apparent effort to reward Roger Stone for his refusal to cooperate with investigators examining the president’s own conduct,” the said. “No other president has exercised the clemency power for such a patently personal and self-serving purpose.”
Stone was convicted of lying to investigators about efforts by Trump campaign aides to learn about WikiLeaks’ plans to release emails that Russian operatives stole from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Mueller’s investigation found Russia undertook a “sweeping” campaign to help Trump, but found no evidence he coordinated with the effort.
Because the president dismisses the investigations as politically motivated he has also written off the indictments and convictions of former aides and associates. His decision to grant clemency to Stone comes at a time when polls show he is trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in key battleground states.
Biden campaign spokesman Bill Russo said that Trump had “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.”
Trump has expressed sympathy for several former aides convicted of crimes, but he had previously refused to reveal his plans about clemency.
Trump’s other pardons – including Arpaio, D’Souza and Scooter Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff – have often involved highly politicized cases. Trump granted pardons last year to two members of the military, Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who were accused of war crimes but who become causes célèbres in conservative media outlets.
In wielding his clemency power, Trump has circumvented the formal process for review. That process includes an FBI background check and recommendations from career prosecutors. Because the president’s power to pardon comes directly from the Constitution, he’s not required to go through that process.