WASHINGTON (AP) — The four lawyers who prosecuted Roger Stone quit the case Tuesday after the Justice Department overruled them and said it would take the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek for President Donald Trump’s ally and confidant.
The departures raised immediate questions over whether Trump, who earlier in the day had blasted the original sentencing recommendation as “very horrible and unfair,” had at least indirectly exerted his will on a Justice Department that he views as an arm of the White House.
The department said the decision to undo the sentencing recommendation was made Monday night — before Trump’s tweet — and prosecutors had not spoken to the White House about it. Even so, the departures of the entire trial team broke open a simmering dispute over the punishment of a Trump ally whose case has long captured the president’s attention. The episode was the latest to entangle the Justice Department, meant to operate free from White House sway in criminal investigations and prosecutions, in presidential politics.
The four attorneys, including two who were early members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia team, comprised the entire Justice Department trial team that won convictions against Stone last fall.
Each had signed onto a Monday sentencing memo that recommended between seven and nine years in prison for Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election. None lent their names to a Tuesday memo that called the original recommendation excessive.
The departures leave in limbo the resolution of a case that was one of the signature prosecutions of Mueller’s team and that cut to the heart of his mission — to determine whether the Trump team had access to nonpublic information about Democratic emails hacked by Russian operatives and provided to WikiLeaks.
The Justice Department’s leader, Attorney General William Barr, has been an ally of the president’s since taking the position. Last year, Barr cleared the president of obstruction of justice even when Mueller had pointedly declined to do so, and has declared the FBI’s Russia investigation — which resulted in charges against Stone — had been based on a “bogus narrative.”
It’s not clear what sentence the department will ultimately seek — a new sentencing memo filed Tuesday evening indicated the original recommendation was too harsh but proposed no specific punishment of its own.
A Justice Department official said authorities decided to step in and seek a shorter sentence because they had been taken by surprise by the initial recommendation. The person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said prosecutors had told the department to expect a recommendation for a shorter sentence.
In their revised sentencing memo, Justice Department officials argued the initial recommendation could be “considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances” but also said it would defer to the court.
It is extremely rare for Justice Department leaders to reverse the decision of its own prosecutors on a sentencing recommendation, particularly after that recommendation has been submitted to the court. A mass exodus from a case is also rare, though the tumult did conjure an episode from last summer when Justice Department lawyers left a lawsuit over whether a citizenship question could be added to the census.
The day began with a morning tweet from Trump that the Stone case was a “miscarriage of justice.” He later told reporters he didn’t speak to Justice Department officials, though he said he could if he wanted.
“I have the absolute right to do it. I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn’t believe, but I didn’t speak to them,” Trump said.
Hours after Trump’s tweet, a Justice Department official called the original recommendation “extreme” and “grossly disproportionate” to Stone’s crimes and said it would file a new sentencing memo.
The departures began soon after. Aaron Zelinsky, a Mueller team member, quit the case and his job in Washington, with plans to return to his position as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore.
Another early Mueller team member, Adam Jed, also withdrew from the case. His status at the Justice Department was not clear.
Another federal prosecutor in Washington, Michael Marando, withdrew from the case, and a fourth trial team member, Jonathan Kravis, resigned his position as an assistant U.S. attorney.
Sentencing decisions are ultimately up to the judge, who in this case may side with the original recommendation.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson has repeatedly scolded Stone for his out-of-court behavior, which included a social media post he made of the judge with what appeared to be crosshairs of a gun.
Meanwhile, Democrats decried the decision, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling for an investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said it would be a blatant abuse of power if Justice Department leadership intervened on Trump’s behalf.
“Doing so would send an unmistakable message that President Trump will protect those who lie to Congress to cover up his own misconduct, and that the Attorney General will join him in that effort,” the California Democrat said.