WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump congratulated his attorney general Wednesday for intervening to lower the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation for the president’s longtime friend Roger Stone, broadening concerns that the department is ceding its independence to the White House.
Later Wednesday, Trump said that Stone was treated “very badly,” and that prosecutors “ought to apologize to him.”
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office ahead of a meeting with President Lenín Moreno of Ecuador, Trump denied that his tweet about Attorney General William Barr was political and called the prosecution of Stone “a disgrace.”
Asked whether he would pardon Stone, the president said, “I don’t want to say that yet, but I tell you what, people were hurt viciously and badly by these corrupt people.”
He added that it was unfair that prosecutors recommended that Stone be sentenced to nine years in prison when James Comey, the former FBI director, has not been jailed.
“You have murderers and drug addicts that don’t get nine years,” the president said. “Nine years for doing something that no one can even define what he did.”
“In the meantime Comey walks around making book deals,” Trump lamented.
Asked what lessons he learned from having been impeached and acquitted, Trump said that “the Democrats are crooked. They got a lot of crooked things going. That they’re vicious. That they shouldn’t have brought impeachment.”
The Justice Department said Tuesday that the Stone case was not discussed with anyone at the White House. The decision to override the recommended sentence was made by officials from the offices of Barr and the deputy attorney general.
In November, Stone was convicted of obstructing a congressional inquiry — the House Intelligence Committee’s examination of 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.
The president’s comments come less than 24 hours after four career prosecutors withdrew from the Stone case after the department overruled their recommended seven- to nine-year term for Stone, a sentence Trump had publicly criticized.
Of the four prosecutors who quit the Stone case Tuesday, one lawyer fully resigned from the Justice Department where he worked as a trial lawyer in the Public Integrity section.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who served under President Barack Obama, called the situation “unprecedented.”
The initial sentencing recommendation for Stone was filed late Monday. On Tuesday, it was amended and refiled stating that the earlier version “did not accurately reflect the Department of Justice’s position on what would be a reasonable sentence in this matter.” The Justice Department instead suggested an unspecified term.
The department’s action Tuesday followed a Fox News report on the recommendation and a Twitter post by Trump who criticized “horrible and very unfair” punishment for Stone.
Presidents typically have avoided interfering in Justice Department decisions to avoid allegations of improper influence, though there is no law against it. Trump has publicly inserted himself into several Justice Department matters, in some instances to protect friends like Stone and to direct investigations into his political rivals.
The president has also demanded loyalty from those who surround him, and he has been pleased with Barr’s leadership of the department. Trump fired his first attorney general, who did not interfere in a special counsel investigation into whether the Trump campaign had coordinated with Russia. The special counsel ultimately did not recommend conspiracy charges, but the case against Stone stems from the Russia inquiry.
The rare act of overruling the decisions of career prosecutors, particularly in such a politically charged case, reinforced concerns by Democrats and others that Trump was tipping the scales of justice in favor of his interests.
Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics, likened Tuesday’s actions to those in countries with authoritarian regimes.
“A corrupt authoritarian and his henchmen are wielding the Justice Department as a shield for friends and a sword for political rivals,” Shaub said Wednesday in a Twitter post. “It is impossible to overstate the danger.”
Democrats have called for an independent evaluation of the decision-making process.
“I do not take a position on the proper prison term for Mr. Stone, but it would be a blatant abuse of power if President Trump has in fact intervened to reverse the recommendations of career prosecutors at the Department of Justice,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a former federal prosecutor himself.
Schiff led the House impeachment team’s arguments that the president should be removed from office. Schiff is also chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which Stone was convicted of obstructing.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, sent a letter to the Justice Department’s inspector general, calling for him to “immediately investigate.” He also blamed Republican senators for not convicting Trump earlier this month during his impeachment trial.
“President Trump didn’t learn any ‘lessons’ when you excused his abuse of power,” Schumer said in a Twitter post Wednesday. “And now you are responsible for every new abuse he commits.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., urged Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a close ally of the president’s, to investigate the sudden change in Stone’s recommended sentence.
Republicans, however, were unmoved.
On Wednesday, Graham told CNN that he had spoken with the Justice Department and that it did not appear such a harsh sentence was necessary. He also said there was a letter from a victim who disputed feeling threatened.
Asked about the developments Tuesday, more than six Republican senators said they were not familiar with the Justice Department’s position and could not comment.
“I do not have an opinion on that,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the majority leader, told reporters at his weekly news conference.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., defended the Justice Department’s actions.
“I have no idea if the change was in the works already or they were reacting to the president’s tweets,” Rubio said Tuesday. “But it is not uncommon for the front-line prosecutor to come up with a recommendation and their superiors, or in many cases the judge themselves, comes in with something else.”
Holder, who was Obama’s first attorney general, said in a Twitter post just after midnight Wednesday, “This affects the rule of law and respect for it.”
“Do not underestimate the danger of this situation: the political appointees in the DOJ are involving themselves in an inappropriate way in cases involving political allies of the President,” he said.