She would have to defy Trump and the DOJ
If anyone actively involved in US politics merits spending some time in jail, I can think of no one more deserving than “dirty trickster” Roger Stone — with the exception of Donald J. Trump. Stone’s entire career has focused on unethical and near-criminal behavior in support of ruthless and dishonest political candidates, like Richard Nixon — whose image is tattooed on his back — and more recently, Trump.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who presides over the Stone trial, will sentence him on Feb. 20 in the middle of one of the most volatile political scandals in Washington. Career prosecutors at the Department of Justice had recommended a sentence of seven to nine years in federal prison for Stone. Despite his denial, evidence shows that Attorney General William Barr acted on Trump’s demand to change the recommendations to a lower sentence. Jackson has an opportunity to bring long-delayed justice to Stone.
The judge also has a chance to warn Trump and Barr that the criminal justice system is not a tool to benefit the president’s friends and potentially harm his enemies.
The dirty work for which Stone will be sentenced involves his effort to obstruct a Congressional investigation to protect Trump. This past November, Stone was convicted on seven counts involving “obstructing the Congressional inquiry” by the House Intelligence Committee into Russian interference in the 2016 election, “lying to investigators under oath and trying to block the testimony of a witness whose account would have exposed his lies,” the NY Times reported.
According to the Washington Post, Stone’s “was the last conviction secured by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as part of the investigation into Russian interference.” Justice Department prosecutors used various factors for their seven to nine years recommendation. “The range ratchets up…if the offense involves…factors such as threatening physical injury or property damage to a witness; substantially interfering with the administration of justice; or the willful obstruction of justice. Each was cited by prosecutors,” the Post said.
In an unprecedented and likely illegal move, Trump publicly intervened to influence the fate of his long-time friend and accomplice. “This is a horrible and very unfair situation,” Trump asserted in a series of Feb. 11 tweets defending Stone. “The real crimes were on the other side. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” Trump got the results he intended. Shortly after he tweeted, Barr made the controversial decision to overrule DOJ’s own prosecutors and recommend a far lower sentence for Roger Stone. Trump later removed the tweet from his Twitter feed.
As you may recall, Barr is the one who rushed to publicize his own misleading interpretation of the Mueller Report, one that “implied a full exoneration of President Trump.”
In a statement on Roger Stone reported by the Post, the DOJ said, “The department finds the recommendation extreme and excessive and disproportionate to Stone’s offenses.” Earlier Barr had replaced the District’s former U.S. attorney, Jessie K. Liu, “with Timothy Shea, one of his closest advisers,” the AP reported in the Times. Shea would be less likely to disagree with any of Barr’s decisions.
In a protest of Barr’s move to overrule their recommendations, “all four career prosecutors handling the case against Roger Stone withdrew from the legal proceedings…and one quit his job entirely,” the Post said. Headlines exploded with the news of the Trump/Barr intervention and the response of the DOJ prosecutors. The former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia Channing Phillips told Politico that “[t]he four attorneys who withdrew from the Stone case “‘should be seen as heroes in some respects. It was obviously a courageous action on their part.’”
Of course Trump claimed that there was no coordination between the White House and the DOJ regarding the change in sentencing guidelines. “I have not been involved in it at all,” he told reporters for the Washington Post and other media outlets. Then just to prove his lack of bias, Trump praised Barr for “taking charge” of the situation involving Stone.
“People were hurt viciously and badly by these corrupt people,” Trump declared Feb. 12, according to Politico. “…I want to thank the Justice Department for seeing this horrible thing. And I didn’t speak to them, by the way, just so you understand. They saw the horribleness of a nine-year sentence for doing nothing.”
Trump’s tweets followed by his public expression of gratitude to Barr constitute evidence of his increasingly authoritarian rule. His assertion that his tweets were not connected to Barr’s action is a pretense that fools no one but his closest supporters. Trump continues to ignore the facts underlying the Mueller Report and the evidence presented during his impeachment, which he still refers to as a “hoax.” He portrays former Special Counsel for the DOJ, Robert Mueller, as the guilty party and Stone as an innocent victim.
Barr Reacts as Confidence in DOJ Erodes
The DOJ’s interference in a criminal case on behalf of a friend of the president has caused an uproar in Washington and throughout the criminal justice system. The Times interviewed “more than a dozen career lawyers in some of the 93 U.S. attorney’s offices” around the country about the Stone case and found that the DOJ’s action had undermined their trust in the Attorney General. The attorneys were particularly concerned that “Mr. Barr might not support them in politically charged cases.”
“Even assuming that Bill Barr is acting with integrity, it is impossible for people to believe that because the president is making him look like his political lap dog,” Jack L. Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who worked under George W. Bush, told the Times. “Trump makes it impossible to have confidence in the department’s judgment.”
Apparently, all the negative attention made the Attorney General uncomfortable. In an exclusive interview with ABC on Feb. 13, Barr tried to clear the air. He said his decision about the Stone sentencing guidelines, which he thought were too severe, had already been made before Trump made his tweet.
Barr “said it was ‘preposterous’ to suggest that he ‘intervened’ in the case as much as he acted to resolve a dispute within the department on a sentencing recommendation.” He complained that Trump “should stop tweeting about the Justice Department because his tweets ‘“make it impossible for me to do my job.’” On MSNBC, Rachel Maddow referred to Barr’s explanation as “the official lie.” True. Barr’s reaction also goes to show that sometimes, even lap dogs will bite their masters.
In response to Barr’s admonition, the Post reported that Trump asserted an unprecedented right to interfere in DOJ criminal cases. After hearing Barr’s comment that the president had never asked him to do anything related to a criminal case,” Trump replied, This doesn’t mean that I do not have, as President, the legal right to do so, I do, but I have so far chosen not to!”
Barr recently took another step to give his office at least the appearance of independence from Trump. He announced on Feb. 14 that the DOJ would drop all charges against Andrew G. McCabe, “the former acting F.B.I. director whom Mr. Trump has vilified” for years. “McCabe authorized the FBI to begin investigating Trump personally for possible obstruction of justice in connection with the probe of whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election,” the Post said.
But the reality at DOJ is that Barr continues to do Trump’s bidding. According to the Post, “Barr has tasked outside prosecutors…to review the handling of the criminal case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and other sensitive national security and public corruption prosecutions in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington.”
“Trump believes that the criminal justice system should be at his disposal,” Rachel Maddow remarked Feb. 14. “The system is being used as a tool by the White House & the Justice Dept. to benefit [Trump’s] friends & go after his enemies.”
In fact, Barr’s performance on ABC has failed to convince his critics otherwise. A loud and growing chorus of voices is demanding his resignation. According to Times reporter Katie Benner, “More than 1,100 former federal prosecutors and Justice Department officials called on…Barr…to step down” in a public letter on Feb. 16. That number has since grown to 2,000, Maddow reported. In The Atlantic, Donald Ayer, Former Deputy Attorney General under George H.W. Bush, excoriated Barr’s record, including his many inappropriate actions on behalf of Trump and his belief in the imperial power of the presidency, as evidence that he should resign.
Who Is Roger Stone?
Why would Trump push to have Roger Stone’s sentence reduced and create a major scandal? First, Stone was instrumental in helping to sell Trump as a palatable campaign product in the 2016 election. The Netflix documentary, “Get Me Roger Stone,” provides a look into the corrupt world of Stone over the years. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin says in the film that “in many respects, Roger Stone created Donald Trump as a political figure. There is no doubt that in tone, in affect, in profile, the Trump candidacy was a pure Roger Stone production.” Second, Stone is probably in a position to share many secrets about Trump, if he were required to do so.
In the documentary, Stone proudly defines himself an “agent provocateur.” He says he has a variety of rules that he seeks to pass on to others, such as, “It is better to be infamous than never be famous at all.” In his early years, Stone did some work for President Nixon. According to Toobin, “Nixon’s approach to politics, the toughness, the win-at-all-costs mentality, that’s what Roger reflects.”
What Sentence Will Judge Amy Berman Jackson Impose?
Prior to the most recent developments, Judge Jackson had shown no indication that she felt intimidated by Stone or his attorneys. Last February, Stone posted a photo of the judge on Instagram next to an image of a crosshairs and language demeaning the legal process and the charges against him. “Through legal trickery Deep State hitman Robert Mueller has guaranteed that my upcoming show trial is before Judge Amy Berman Jackson,” Stone wrote, according to BuzzFeed News.
Judge Jackson responded by imposing a complete gag order on Stone. She has since denied Stone’s request for a new trial. In an order unsealed Feb. 12, she stated that “Stone’s defense team provided no reason to believe there had been ‘a serious miscarriage of justice,’” John Kruzel of The Hill reported.
Trump continues to interfere in the Stone case by vilifying Judge Jackson in his tweets, perhaps with the intent to intimidate her or portray her as a cruel magistrate and Stone as the victim. “Is this the Judge that put Paul Manafort in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, something that not even mobster Al Capone had to endure?” Trump tweeted. “How did she treat Crooked Hillary Clinton? Just asking!”
Will Judge Jackson feel intimidated by Trump’s tweets or the intervention of Trump and the DOJ on behalf of Stone? Definitely not. After all, last March she “nearly doubled the prison sentence of President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, to seven and a half years,” the Times reported.
“She said that Mr. Manafort had used his many talents as a strategist to evade taxes, deceive banks, subvert lobbying laws and obstruct justice — all so he could sustain an ‘ostentatiously opulent’ lifestyle,’” the Times noted. Judge Jackson could have sentenced Manafort to ten years, but she took into account guidelines related to an overlapping criminal case in Virginia.
In the Roger Stone case, the judge will have to sort out two differing sets of sentencing recommendations. She could even call in the DOJ to explain to the court why the recommendations were changed.
Since this story first broke, protests against the Trump administration and Barr have increased. Democrats in Congress have blasted Trump’s inappropriate attempts to control the outcome of Stone’s case. The Post reported that “Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate.”
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) condemned Trump’s interference in the Stone case. He told the Post, “Despite whatever Trump, William Barr, and their helpers think, the United States is a nation of laws and not an authoritarian’s paradise.”
On MSNBC Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren described Trump & Barr’s attempt to lower the recommended sentence for Stone as a “crisis for our country.”
“We have a president who is out of control,” Warren said.
Judge Jackson may be one of the few people who can impose some level of control over Trump and an Attorney General acting like his personal fixer. Her sentence of Roger Stone Feb. 20 could send a message that Trump and Barr should think twice before they continue to trample on the Constitution and use the criminal justice system for the president’s own purposes.