WASHINGTON — Four prosecutors abruptly withdrew Tuesday from the case of President Donald Trump’s longtime friend, Roger Stone, after senior Justice Department officials intervened to recommend a more lenient sentence for crimes he committed in a bid to protect the president.
In an extraordinary decision overruling career lawyers, the Justice Department recommended an unspecified term of incarceration for Stone instead of the prosecutors’ request of a punishment of seven to nine years. The move coincided with Trump’s declaration on Twitter early Tuesday that the government was treating Stone too harshly.
The development immediately prompted questions about whether the Justice Department was bending to White House pressure. The gulf between the prosecutors and their Justice Department superiors burst into public view the week before Stone was to be sentenced for trying to sabotage a congressional investigation that had posed a threat to the president.
The prosecutors — one of whom resigned from the department — were said to be furious over the reversal of their sentencing request, filed in federal court late Monday. The Stone case was one of the most high-profile criminal prosecutions arising from the nearly two-year investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
The development added to the sense of turmoil in Washington that has followed Trump’s acquittal by the Senate six days ago on charges of abuse of power and obstructing Congress. With the impeachment case behind him, Trump fired an ambassador while his national security adviser dismissed an aide; both had testified against the president in the impeachment hearings.
To some, the surprising reversal in the politically sensitive Stone case underscored questions about Attorney General William Barr’s willingness to protect the department’s independence from any political influence by Trump. Critics have accused Barr of seeming to side with the president over law enforcement, including his criticism of the origins of the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russia in 2016. That is now the subject of a criminal inquiry that Barr is overseeing.
A friend of Trump for decades, Stone, 67, was convicted in November of obstructing an 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 who would have exposed his lies.
In a message on Twitter early Tuesday, Trump criticized the sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years as “horrible and very unfair.”
As he did after the jury’s guilty verdict, he attacked federal law enforcement officials, saying “the real crimes were on the other side.”
“Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” Trump added. He later denied to reporters that he tried to influence the case in any way but described the Justice Department’s initial sentencing request as a disgrace.
The president assailed the prosecutors directly, asking on Twitter who were the lawyers “who cut and ran after being exposed for recommending a ridiculous 9 year prison sentence” for Stone, who he said “got caught up in an investigation that was illegal, the Mueller Scam.”
In yet another Twitter message, he attacked Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court in Washington, who is presiding over Stone’s case. He asked whether she had ordered solitary confinement for Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul J. Manafort. The president said Manafort suffered worse treatment than “even mobster Al Capone had to endure.”
Jackson handled one of two criminal cases that resulted in a prison term of 7 1/2 years for Manafort for financial fraud and other crimes. But prison and jail officials, not Jackson, determined his conditions of confinement.
In a new court filing Tuesday, Timothy Shea, the interim head of the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, wrote that the Justice Department believed that Stone should be imprisoned but that a term of seven to nine years would be excessive.
“Ultimately, the government defers to the court as to what specific sentence is appropriate under the facts and circumstances of this case,” Shea stated in the filing, which was also signed by a prosecutor newly assigned to the case, John Crabb Jr. The new filing also noted that Stone is a senior citizen with no prior criminal record.
Three of the four prosecutors who conducted the investigation and trial of Stone withdrew from the case, while a fourth resigned from the Justice Department entirely. Some former senior officials said the case showed that the department was in an increasingly precarious position under Trump.
Michael R. Bromwich, who was the department’s inspector general under President Bill Clinton, advised prosecutors to report all instances of improper political influence to the agency’s watchdog.
“This is not what you signed up for. The four prosecutors who bailed on the Stone case have shown the way,” he wrote on Twitter. He described the political pressure from the White House as “truly a cancer on our system of justice.”
Mary McCord, who led the Justice Department’s national security division at the end of the Obama administration and the start of the Trump era, predicted the department will be beset with questions about whether officials had bowed to political pressure from the president.
“The department has to seriously consider what impact a reversal that appears to be in response to the president’s displeasure will have on its credibility and reputation in the courts,” she said.
Justice Department officials did not discuss the case with anyone in the White House, including the president, said Kerri Kupec, a department spokeswoman, adding that they were not reacting to any directive from Trump or to his criticism on Twitter. Trump also told reporters later in the day that he did not discuss the case with the department.
As is customary in high-profile prosecutions, the line prosecutors on the Stone case discussed their proposed sentencing recommendation with senior officials. But they apparently came to no clear agreement before the document was filed in court, an outcome that one Justice Department official attributed to a breakdown in management.
Among those involved were Shea, who took over last week as the U.S. attorney in Washington; his chief of staff, David Metcalf; the deputy attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen; and officials in Barr’s office, according to people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Both Shea and officials in Rosen’s office argued that a prison term of seven to nine years was too harsh but they did not push for specific punishment, one Justice Department official said.
Officials in the offices of Barr and Rosen decided to override the prosecutors’ recommendation after they filed it in court Monday night, officials said.
The line prosecutors were even more upset because they were told they would be reversed only after Fox News had reported it late Tuesday morning, according to people familiar with the situation.. Other prosecutors were also distressed, including those working on the case of Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who faces his own sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to investigators in the Russia inquiry.
At least one senior department official expressed surprise by the decision by all four prosecutors to pull out of the case. Two of them — Adam C. Jed and Aaron Zelinsky — began working on the case as members of the special counsel’s team. Michael J. Marando also resigned from the case, as did Jonathan Kravis, who left the Justice Department altogether.
In 2018, three career lawyers withdrew from an Affordable Care Act case after it became entangled in the heated politics of the Trump administration, and one resigned in protest.
But David Laufman, a former chief of the Justice Department’s counterintelligence unit, said he could not recall another criminal case in which an entire team of prosecutors had resigned en masse, apparently to protest improper political interference.
“This is a ‘break glass in case of fire’ moment,” he said. “We have now seen the political leadership of the department, presumably acting on the president’s desires, reaching down into a criminal case to withdraw a reasoned sentencing recommendation to the court.”
The prosecutors’ withdrawals suggest that they not only disagreed with officials at the department’s headquarters but were also concerned about compromising their own ethics, said Greg Brower, a former prosecutor and senior FBI official.
Until now, the Stone case had been viewed as one of the more important successes of the special counsel investigation. Stone put up a weak defense, and the jury deliberated only seven hours before convicting him on all counts. In what some saw as a last-minute plea for salvation before the verdict came in, Stone expressed hope through a proxy that the president would pardon him.
If the president intervened to reverse the decision of career prosecutors, it would be “a blatant abuse of power,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who oversees the House committee that Stone was convicted of lying to.
“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,” Schiff said in a statement.
Grant Smith, a lawyer for Stone, said the defense team was “looking forward to reviewing” the department’s revised position. Jackson is scheduled to sentence Stone on Feb. 20.
In their initial sentencing memorandum, federal prosecutors said that Stone deserved a stiff sentence because he threatened a witness with bodily harm, deceived congressional investigators and carried out an extensive, deliberate, illegal scheme that included repeatedly lying under oath and forging documents.
Even after he was charged in a felony indictment, the prosecutors said, Stone continued to try to manipulate the administration of justice by threatening Jackson in a social media post and violating her gag orders.
Those and other aggravating factors justified a prison term of up to nine years under federal sentencing guidelines, prosecutors said. While the guidelines are advisory, federal judges typically consider them carefully.
Defense lawyers characterized the prosecutors’ arguments as overblown. Stone not only never intended to harm the witness, they said, but he also never created any real obstacle for investigators. While the witness, a New York radio host named Randy Credico, refused to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, they pointed out, he was later repeatedly interviewed by the FBI, appeared before the federal grand jury and testified against Stone during his trial.
In a letter asking Jackson to spare Stone a prison term, Credico said that while he stood by his testimony, he never believed Stone would carry out his threat to injure him or his beloved dog. “I chalked up his bellicose tirades to ‘Stone being Stone.’ All bark and no bite,” Credico wrote.
Stone’s defense team also said that his violations of Jackson’s orders should not count against him because the criminal proceedings had exacerbated his “long-standing battle with anxiety” and that he had corrected that problem through therapy. They requested he be sentenced to less than 15 months in prison — the least serious punishment under the guidelines for his crimes.
The decision to seek a more lenient punishment for Stone came less than two weeks after prosecutors backed off on their sentencing recommendation for Flynn. Prosecutors had initially sought up to six months in prison then said they would not oppose probation instead of prison time.
One of the prosecutors in the Flynn case, Brandon L. Van Grack — who took on the case under Mueller, the special counsel, and continued to work on it after he rejoined the Justice Department’s national security division — did not sign the memo in support of probation, though he had signed earlier briefs in the case.
The intervention by senior Justice Department officials in Stone’s case serves as the first big test for Shea, who assumed charge of the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington only last Monday.
A longtime trusted adviser to Barr and former senior counselor to him, Shea now oversees some of the department’s most politically fraught cases, including two inquiries focusing on two former law enforcement officials whom Trump has cast as political enemies. Former FBI director James Comey is said to be the focus of investigators in an unusual inquiry into years-old leaks to the news media. Comey’s former deputy Andrew McCabe faces allegations that he misled investigators in an administrative inquiry. That case has languished.
Shea replaced Jessie K. Liu, who stepped down after two years as U.S. attorney after the president nominated her as the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes. But some Republicans questioned her conservative credentials and her loyalty to the Trump administration.
On Tuesday, the White House withdrew her nomination, a person familiar with the matter said, two days before her scheduled confirmation hearing.