All four federal prosecutors who ran the Roger Stone trial abruptly dropped out of the case on Tuesday after senior Department of Justice leadership intervened to take the rare step of walking back the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation. The extraordinary series of events marks the latest sign of President Donald Trump and his appointees politicizing DOJ.
On Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia filed a new recommendation asking that Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, be sentenced to prison but not suggesting any particular length of time.
The more lenient recommendation was a rapid turnaround after federal prosecutors Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, Adam C. Jed, Jonathan Kravis and Michael Marando told the court on Monday that Stone should face seven to nine years behind bars for witness tampering and lying to Congress. But that was before Trump publicly raged against the proposed sentence, tweeting that “this miscarriage of justice” cannot be allowed.
A jury convicted Stone in November on seven counts, including witness tampering, lying to Congress and obstructing an official proceeding. He was one of the highest-profile Trump allies to face prosecution as a result of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office had intensely debated what sentence to recommend for Stone, according to The Washington Post, ultimately settling on 87 to 108 months to reflect the severity of his crimes. They cited federal guidelines that call for longer sentences if the offender has threatened physical harm or property damage, which Stone did when he told prosecution witness Randy Credico that he should “prepare to die.”
The prosecutors also wrote that a longer sentence would send the message that Stone’s crimes, which took place “in the context of a congressional investigation on matters of critical national importance,” should not be taken lightly.
But following Trump’s overnight tweet, which he sent just before 2 a.m. on Tuesday morning, the Justice Department reportedly decided to overrule the career prosecutors. Higher-ups at DOJ were not accurately briefed on the initial recommendation, a Fox News source claimed. (DOJ spokesperson Kerri Kupec told Fox News that the decision to make a new sentencing recommendation was reached before Trump’s tweet and that DOJ has had no contact with the White House on the matter.)
Zelinsky’s resignation as a prosecutor on the Stone case Tuesday afternoon was the first dramatic response to the reports of DOJ walking back the sentencing request. He was one of Mueller’s top prosecutors during the Russia investigation and had been a Supreme Court clerk for both liberal and conservative justices. As part of his withdrawal from the Stone case, Zelinsky also resigned as a special assistant U.S. attorney on loan to the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., but he retained his position with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland.
Kravis included in his withdrawal filing that he was resigning as an assistant U.S. attorney serving in the D.C. office. Jed is another former member of Mueller’s team who, like Zelinsky, moved to the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. for the Stone trial.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for an investigation into the reduced sentencing recommendation in a letter to the DOJ’s Inspector General.
“The American people must have confidence that justice in this country is dispensed impartially,” Schumer said. “That confidence cannot be sustained if the president or his political appointees are permitted to interfere in prosecution and sentencing recommendations in order to protect their friends and associates.”
Trump has repeatedly claimed he was exonerated in the special counsel’s investigation and has lashed out at anyone or anything that implicated him in wrongdoing. In his early Tuesday tweet, he claimed that “the real crimes were on the other side.” The Mueller investigation led to numerous indictments, guilty pleas and convictions of Trump world figures such as the president’s former attorney Michael Cohen, former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Stone.
Trump has not ruled out pardoning Stone, a Republican operative going back to the Nixon years who has affiliations with conspiracy theorists and far-right extremists and who was one of Trump’s most loyal advocates during the Russia probe.