'Roger Stone is now a free man': Donald Trump commutes longtime friend's 40-month prison term

Punctuated by the inflammatory language and angry grievances characteristic of the president’s Twitter feed, the White House statement assailed “overzealous prosecutors” working for Robert Mueller

The New York Times July 11, 2020 08:29:25 IST
'Roger Stone is now a free man': Donald Trump commutes longtime friend's 40-month prison term

Washington: President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime friend Roger Stone Jr on seven felony crimes Friday, using the power of his office to help a former campaign adviser days before Stone was to report to a federal prison to serve a 40-month term.

In a lengthy statement released late on a Friday evening, the White House denounced the prosecution against Stone on what it called “process based charges” stemming from “the Russia hoax” investigation.

“Roger Stone has already suffered greatly,” the statement said.

“He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!”

Punctuated by the same sort of inflammatory language and angry grievances characteristic of the president’s Twitter feed, the official statement assailed “overzealous prosecutors” working for Special Counsel Robert Mueller as well as the “witch hunts” aimed at the president and his associates.

It attacked the “activist juror” who led the panel that convicted Stone and went on to complain about the show of force used by federal law enforcement agents when he was arrested.

“These charges were the product of recklessness borne of frustration and malice,” the statement said. “This is why the out-of-control Mueller prosecutors, desperate for splashy headlines to compensate for a failed investigation, set their sights on Mr Stone.”

The statement did not argue that Stone was innocent, only that he should not have been pursued. “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,” it said.

Stone, 67, a longtime Republican operative, was convicted of obstructing a congressional investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign and has been openly lobbying for clemency, maintaining that he could die in prison and emphasising that he had stayed loyal to the president rather than help investigators.

“He knows I was under enormous pressure to turn on him,” Stone told journalist Howard Fineman on Friday shortly before the announcement. “It would have eased my situation considerably. But I didn’t.”

After the commutation was announced, Grant Smith, a lawyer for Stone, said: “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. Mr and Mrs Stone appreciate all the consideration the president gave to this matter.”

Democrats quickly condemned the president’s decision, characterising it as an abuse of the rule of law. “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,” said Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat, California, a leader of the drive to impeach Trump last year for pressuring Ukraine to incriminate his domestic rivals.

Trump uses power again

The commutation for Stone was the latest action by the Trump administration helping the president’s convicted friends. The justice department moved in May to dismiss its own criminal case against Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. And last month Trump fired Geoffrey S Berman, the US attorney whose office prosecuted Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal lawyer, and has been investigating Rudy Giuliani, another of his lawyers.

Trump has used his power to issue pardons or commutations to a variety of political allies, supporters or people with connections to his own circle, like former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik, financier Michael Milken and former Governor Rod Blagojevich of Illinois.

But Stone is the first figure directly connected to the president’s campaign to benefit from his clemency power. While Trump has publicly dangled pardons for associates targeted by investigators, that was a line he had been wary of crossing until now amid warnings from advisers concerned about the possible political damage.

Stone made no secret of his desire for clemency from the president.

While it was not immediately clear when the two last spoke, Stone has given several interviews in which he said he was “praying” for a reprieve from Trump. He cited health concerns, including asthma, and a fear of the coronavirus.

“I think I’ll be the last person to know” if there is an action from the president, Stone told Fox News earlier this week. “He hates leaks, and he hates to be told what to do. I have instructed my lawyers not to contact the lawyers at the White House.”

Stone added: “The president, who I’ve known for 40 years, has an incredible sense of fairness. He is aware that the people trying to destroy Michael Flynn, now trying to destroy me, are the people trying to destroy him.”

The dirty trickster

Stone has been one of the most colorful figures in American politics for decades, cheerfully engaging in dirty tricks that others would disavow. He made political contributions to a Republican challenger to President Richard Nixon in 1972 under the name of the Young Socialist Alliance and hired an operative to try to infiltrate the campaign of George McGovern, the Democratic candidate.

He was accused of leaving a threatening, profanity-laced voicemail message for the father of Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York, resulting in his resignation. But he later got his revenge on Spitzer by claiming credit for spreading the rumor that the governor wore black dress socks during sexual escapades with prostitutes.

An unapologetic admirer of Nixon who even had the disgraced president’s face tattooed on his back, Stone also worked for other major Republican candidates including former Governor Tom Kean of New Jersey and Senator Bob Dole, the party’s 1996 nominee for president.

Stone’s history of scandals and dirty tricks did not trouble Trump. Stone is not only Trump’s longest-serving political adviser, but he has been integral to most of the president’s political activities over the past 33 years.

He was there when the celebrity real estate developer first wrote The Art of the Deal in 1987 and a makeshift effort in New Hampshire was made to draft Trump to run for president.

He helped organise Trump’s speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee in 2011, where he declared himself against abortion rights. And he helped map out the first days of Trump’s 2016 campaign before leaving after several weeks over the direction of the campaign.

Stone quit as an adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign; Trump later claimed he fired Stone. Either way, the falling out was sour. Trump later called him a “stone-cold loser” and aides said the president viewed him as a self-promoter.

But after Stone was indicted, the president repeatedly hinted that he might pardon him. “Roger Stone and everybody has to be treated fairly,” he said after Stone was sentenced. “This has not been a fair process.”

The debate over clemency for Stone has raged within the White House for months.

Among those who advocated on behalf of it from outside the building were Tucker Carlson, the influential Fox News anchor, and Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican, Florida, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Within the White House itself, Stone had few allies. Many Trump aides who knew him from the campaign did not like him, were envious of his long relationship with Trump or thought clemency would be bad politics.

Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, expressed concern about possible political damage, according to two people familiar with the discussions, although he has left people with different impressions about where he stands. The same is true of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who has been involved in most of the clemency discussions throughout the last three years.

Pat A Cipollone, the White House counsel, was concerned about intervening on Stone’s behalf, according to the people close to the discussions. One of the few within the White House who backed clemency was Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser and an old friend of Stone. Kudlow spends more time with Trump than many other advisers.

Stone was convicted last year of obstructing a congressional inquiry into whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election. Prosecutors convinced jurors that he lied under oath, withheld a trove of documents and threatened an associate with harm if he cooperated with congressional investigators.

Stone maintained his innocence and claimed prosecutors wanted him to offer information about Trump that he said did not exist.

Stone was sentenced against a backdrop of upheaval at the justice department not seen for decades. First, four career prosecutors recommended that he be sentenced to 7 to 9 years in prison, citing advisory sentencing guidelines that generally govern the department’s sentencing requests.

After Trump attacked the prosecutors’ recommendation on Twitter, Attorney-General William Barr overruled it. Trump then publicly applauded him for doing so, even though the attorney general said he made the decision on his own and criticised the president on national television for undercutting his credibility.

The prosecutors withdrew from the case in protest, and one quit the department entirely. At Stone’s sentencing hearing in February, US district judge Amy Berman Jackson called the situation “unprecedented.” Without naming him, she suggested that the president had tried to influence the course of justice by publicly attacking her, the jurors and the justice department lawyers.

“The dismay and disgust at any attempt to interfere with the efforts of prosecutors and members of the judiciary to fulfill their duty should transcend party,” she said.

In an interview with ABC News this week, Barr defended both the original prosecution of Stone as well as his own intervention to reduce the punishment, saying the case itself was “righteous” but the sentencing recommendation “excessive.”

Stone, who lives in Florida, had been ordered earlier to report to the Bureau of Prisons by 30 June to begin serving his sentence. He sought a two-month delay, citing the coronavirus pandemic sweeping through federal prisons, but Jackson granted him only a two-week reprieve, noting that the prison he was to report to was “unaffected” by the outbreak.

Two other former aides to Trump who were convicted of federal crimes were released from prison to serve out their sentences under home arrest because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cohen, who broke with Trump and publicly accused him of vast wrongdoing, was released from a federal prison camp in May, but taken back into custody this week after refusing to agree to terms of his probation that would have forced him to scrub a tell-all book he planned to publish in September.

He was serving a three-year sentence for campaign finance violations and other crimes related to a scheme to pay hush money during the 2016 presidential race to two women who said they had affairs with Trump, which the president has denied.

Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman, was also released in May from a central Pennsylvania prison, where he was serving a seven and a half year sentence for bank and tax fraud. He is now confined at home.

Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman and Sharon LaFraniere c.2020 The New York Times Company

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