Prosecutors in the federal case against Roger Stone recommended seven to nine years prison time. Shortly after the president criticized the recommendation, senior DOJ officials intervened.
Update (Feb. 11, 5:45 p.m.): The fourth prosecutor in Roger Stone’s case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael J. Marando, has also asked to be withdrawn as counsel.
In response to senior officials at the Department of Justice interfering with their sentencing recommendations in the federal case against Roger Stone, three key prosecutors withdrew from the legal proceedings on Tuesday. One resigned from the Department of Justice altogether.
Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, a special assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, withdrew from the case just hours after top-level Justice Department officials stepped in to recommend a more lenient sentence for Stone, a friend and former advisor to President Trump. Adam Jed, an assistant U.S. Attorney, joined Zelinsky in withdrawing from the case while another assistant U.S. attorney, Jonathan Kravis, fully resigned from the DOJ.
Wait, what happened?
On Monday evening, federal prosecutors asked a judge to sentence Stone to seven to nine years in prison for his obstruction of a congressional investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Stone lied to investigators under oath and tried to prevent a witness who would have incriminated him from testifying.
President Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday to criticize the sentencing recommendation, calling it a “horrible and very unfair situation” and a “miscarriage of justice.”
Senior DOJ officials were reportedly taken aback by the proposed seven-to-nine-year prison sentence, and intervened shortly after the president’s statement, announcing they intended to reduce the department’s sentencing recommendation. One DOJ official told the Washington Post that the department found the initial recommendation “extreme and excessive.”
A DOJ spokesperson told The Daily Beast the decision to override the recommendation was made prior to Trump’s tweet.
Even if that’s the case, the optics of the situation are already raising concerns.
In an updated court filing on Tuesday, which was first reported by Politico, the DOJ formally said its initial sentencing recommendation was too high, but did not offer a new replacement recommendation.
Why is this such a big deal?
The Department of Justice is supposed to be apolitical and refrain from being influenced by the president’s own political agenda. Under the current administration, however, those norms have been obliterated. Under Attorney General Bill Barr, Trump has been accused of harnessing the power of the DOJ for his own political gain, throwing into question the credibility of the nation’s premier federal law enforcement agency in the process.
David Laufman, the former Chief of Counterintelligence & Export Control Section at the Justice Department blasted the DOJ’s decision on Twitter, calling it “a shocking, cram-down political intervention in the criminal justice process” that represents “a break-glass-in-case-of-fire moment for the Justice Dept.”
Other legal experts quickly joined him in blasting the DOJ’s leadership and raising their concerns.
Democrats also sounded the alarm, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) calling for an investigation into the matter. “The DOJ Inspector General must open an investigation immediately,” Schumer wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, when asked about Stone, the president said Tuesday he did not talk to DOJ officials about his former campaign adviser but said he has the “absolute right” to do so. “I thought the recommendation was ridiculous,” he added.
Stone’s sentencing will take place on Feb. 20 in the Federal District Court in Washington, D.C.
Until then, the controversy at the DOJ is likely to remain the story, and more resignations could follow.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include President Trump’s comments about Stone’s sentence.