Roger Stone, the longtime confidant of Donald Trump, has been sentenced to 40 months in prison following nearly two weeks of controversy over how the US justice department handled the case under public pressure from the president.
Stone (67), a veteran Republican political operative, was convicted last year of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering to protect Mr Trump, who has repeatedly denounced the case.
Speaking at an event in Las Vegas shortly after the sentencing, Mr Trump reierated his view that Mr Stone had been treated unfairly, but indicated he would not move to pardon him immediately. “I want the process to be played out,” he said, adding: “Roger Stone has a very good chance of exoneration, in my opinion,”
Earlier this week Mr Trump granted clemency to several white-collar criminals.
The sentence was handed down on Thursday by Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who has been the target of repeated attacks by the president as scrutiny on the case has grown.
Last week, William Barr, Mr Trump's attorney-general, overruled a recommendation by career prosecutors that Stone serve up to nine years in jail. Mr Trump had criticised the recommendation as a "miscarriage of justice".
Judge Jackson on Thursday issued a rousing defence of judicial independence as she handed down the sentence, addressing head-on the political controversy surrounding the prosecution of Mr Trump’s friend and political ally.
“He was not prosecuted, as some have complained, for standing up for the president,” she said. “He was prosecuted for covering up for the president.”
Mr Trump has publicly attacked the prosecutors, all four of whom quit the case after the sentencing reversal, as well as Judge Jackson and a juror in Stone’s trial. The attorney-general has insisted his decision to overrule the prosecutors was made independently of the president.
The events surrounding Stone’s sentencing have sparked accusations that Mr Barr is giving special treatment to the president’s allies and focused attention on Mr Trump’s claims of absolute authority to direct criminal prosecutions, even those of his friends.
John Crabb, a senior prosecutor in the US attorney's office in Washington who joined the case after the trial team quit, told Judge Jackson the prosecution of Stone was "righteous" and blamed an internal miscommunication for the sentencing reversal.
He told Judge Jackson the justice department was committed to enforcing the law “without fear or favour or political influence” and asked for a “substantial period of incarceration” for Stone.
Still, he declined to specify how long Stone should be incarcerated, despite that being the standard practice for his office, and appeared to reference the political pressure Mr Trump has applied.
“Under the unique facts and circumstances presented in this matter, it is particularly appropriate for the government to defer to the court,” he said.
Stone's case is the latest to result in significant jail time for an associate of the president. Paul Manafort, Mr Trump's former campaign manager, is serving 7½ years in prison after his conviction in two cases, one of which involved Judge Jackson.
Michael Cohen, the president's former personal attorney who turned witness against him, is serving three years after pleading guilty to charges brought in New York.
The cases all arose from Robert Mueller’s investigation into links between Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Russian government, which the special counsel wrapped up without establishing a criminal conspiracy.
Stone, a flamboyant self-described "dirty trickster" who has a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back, was convicted for lying to Congress in 2017 about his contacts with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.
He had publicly claimed to have an "intermediary" with Julian Assange as the WikiLeaks founder released a trove of documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee in a hack the US has attributed to Russia.
Stone’s lies to Congress included false information about the identity of the intermediary, a jury concluded last November. The jury also found him guilty of witness tampering after he threatened another witness before Congress to ensure they did not contradict him.
On Thursday, Seth Ginsberg, Stone's attorney, sought to downplay the severity of the crimes and urged Judge Jackson not to jail his client, saying that his family would "suffer tremendously if he is incarcerated".
Stone, who is likely to appeal, declined to speak on his own behalf on Thursday: “Your honour, I choose not to speak at this time, thank you very much.”
He appeared impassive as Judge Jackson gave her sentencing statement, at times standing with his hands in his pockets. Stone is not due to surrender to authorities until after his motion for a new trial is ruled upon.
‘Dismay and disgust’
The case was fraught with controversy from the beginning as Stone’s arrest by the FBI in a dawn raid was criticised by the president’s allies.
At one point, Judge Jackson barred Stone from commenting on the case after he criticised her in an Instagram post that included a picture of a judge next to crosshairs.
At Thursday’s sentencing hearing, she slammed the conduct as “incendiary”.
In an almost 45 minute statement, Judge Jackson decried Stone’s lies to Congress and his “belligerence” as a “threat to our most fundamental institutions”. She said the “dismay and disgust” at his crimes should “transcend parties”.
“If it goes unpunished, it will not be a victory for one party or another, every one loses,” she said, rejecting claims that Stone had little impact on investigations into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
Mr Trump has frequently spoken out in defence of Stone, even after Mr Barr complained that the president’s tweets made it “impossible” to do his job.
Earlier this week, the president granted clemency to several high-profile white collar criminals, raising expectations that he may pardon Stone, a controversial move loudly supported by the president’s allies. Mr Trump has denied considering it.
On Wednesday evening, however, he tweeted a Fox News clip that criticised Stone’s prosecution and called for a pardon. As the hearing commenced on Thursday, the president referenced his ally’s case in a tweet about former justice department officials he has accused of lying. “FAIRNESS?” he tweeted.
Judge Jackson appeared to take aim at Mr Trump’s comments on the case, without naming him, calling them “entirely inappropriate” although she said she not hold them against Stone.
She said it was for good reason that sentencing decisions were in the hands of neutral judges, “not someone who has a longstanding friendship with the defendant”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020