Prosecutors Quit Roger Stone Case After DOJ Seeks Less Prison Time For Trump Ally

Feb 11, 2020
Originally published on February 11, 2020 4:47 pm

Updated at 6:56 p.m. ET

Four federal prosecutors withdrew from the Roger Stone case on Tuesday, hours after the Justice Department took the unusual step of intervening in the case to seek a shorter sentence for the longtime ally of the president.

The four prosecutors who filed their papers with the court to withdraw are Aaron Zelinsky, Jonathan Kravis, Adam Jed and Michael Marando.

Zelinsky resigned as a special assistant U.S. Attorney in the Washington D.C. office. It appears he continues to work for the Justice Department in his earlier capacity with the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office.

Kravis resigned as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office for D.C. Jed and Marando said they are withdrawing from the case.

At issue is the prison term prosecutors recommended for Stone, who sought to serve as an intermediary between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and WikiLeaks. He was found guilty last November on several charges, including lying to Congress, and is awaiting sentencing.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington had recommended Monday that Stone serve seven to nine years in prison, but Justice Department officials were "shocked" by the "extreme and excessive and disproportionate" severity of that sentence, a senior Justice Department official said.

So the department ordered the submission of a second sentencing memo in the case, displacing the first. The second memo, which appeared with court records on Tuesday afternoon, said that a sentence "far less" than the prospective seven to nine years in prison "would be reasonable under the circumstances." It did not make a specific recommendation.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson has the ultimate authority to hand down the sentence in Stone's case and the government said in its second filing that it deferred to her.

Trump criticism

The back and forth over Stone's sentence followed a post on Twitter by Trump on Tuesday that faulted the recommended sentence.

Officials didn't make any explicit link between the president's tweet and the Justice Department's planned action. The senior Justice Department official said that department leadership had resolved on Monday evening to challenge the initial sentencing memo, before the Twitter post.

The president told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that he hadn't asked the Justice Department for a reduced sentence for Stone. Trump declined to comment when asked whether he was considering a pardon for his ally.

Trump's critics blasted what they called the president's attempt to influence what are supposed to be the independent workings of the Justice Department.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., vowed in his own Twitter post that the panel would investigate.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on the Justice Department's inspector general to investigate the events leading up to the submission of the second sentencing memo.

"This situation has all the indicia of improper political interference in a criminal prosecution," Schumer wrote to Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

The Stone matter

Stone and his camp sought to serve as intermediaries between Trump's campaign and WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential election, though Stone said he did nothing wrong.

He maintained that he had no inside knowledge about the Russian attack on the election or WikiLeaks' role and that he was only talking up his own importance.

Prosecutors, however, charged him with lying to Congress, obstructing its investigation and witness tampering.

Stone was convicted on all seven counts in his trial by a federal jury in November. The judge has scheduled sentencing for next week. Ahead of that, prosecutors and Stone's defense team filed their respective sentencing memos Monday, which prompted the subsequent reaction.

Stone's attorneys asked for probation.

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Three prosecutors withdrew today from the case against Roger Stone, the longtime ally of President Trump. And they did so hours after the Justice Department's senior leadership stepped in to change the recommended prison time for Stone ahead of his sentencing next week. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is here in the studio to help us understand what's going on. And let's start with the background on Roger Stone. What was going on with this case?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: So Stone was charged early last year with making false statements, obstruction and witness tampering, charges that all tied back into his efforts to contact WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign. The case was brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of the Russian investigation. Stone fought it, went to trial and was convicted by a federal jury here in Washington, D.C., in November. He's due to be sentenced next week. Ahead of that, the defense team and prosecutors had to file memos to the court with their recommended sentences for Stone. And so last night, they did that. Stone's lawyers asked for probation. Prosecutors recommended the guidelines range of seven to nine years. And that's where things then take a twist.

CORNISH: That twist being the senior Justice Department officials weighing in, right?

LUCAS: Right. Right. A senior Justice Department official tells NPR that the department was shocked to see the recommendation that the U.S. attorney's office for D.C. made for Stone. The official says the seven to nine years wasn't what had been briefed to the department and that the department found that recommendation, quote, "extreme and excessive and disproportionate to Stone's offenses." The government just filed a filing with the court. It says the earlier recommendation was not appropriate. It says Stone should spend some time behind bars but that it leaves it to the court to decide how long that ultimately should be. But the timing of this whole saga has generated a ton of questions because a few hours before this kind of pushback from the DOJ emerged, President Trump had tweeted about the Stone case. He said the recommended sentence was horrible and unfair and said, quote, "cannot allow this miscarriage of justice."

CORNISH: So now people are questioning whether or not there's a connection between the president's tweet and the department's change of course?

LUCAS: Right. And the senior Justice Department official told me that the decision to revise the government sentencing recommendations was actually made on Monday night, so before Trump's tweet. But even so, the timeline here has definitely fueled questions about possible political interference in this case. I spoke to former federal prosecutors about how unusual it is for Justice Department leadership to weigh in on sentencing like this. Some of the people I spoke to were career folks. Some were political appointees. One of them is Michael J. Moore. He served for five years as a U.S. attorney for the middle district of Georgia. Here's what he said.

MICHAEL MOORE: It's essentially close to being unheard of. And I don't remember in the time that I served as United States attorney that I had that situation arise.

LUCAS: U.S. attorney's offices do consult on cases with the department leadership in Washington. But I'm told it is highly unusual for the department leadership to step in and overrule career prosecutors in a U.S. attorney's office when it comes to a sentencing recommendation. And there already has been fallout from this. Hours after the Department signaled its displeasure, saying that it wanted leniency, three prosecutors on the Stone case, as you mentioned, filed papers with the court. Two prosecutors who were on Mueller's team withdrew from this case. A third prosecutor resigned from his job as assistant U.S. attorney with the D.C. office.

CORNISH: So you have these prosecutors withdrawing from the case. What happens now?

LUCAS: Stone's sentencing, as I said, is scheduled for next week. The ultimate decision on how much time he spends behind bars lies in the hands of Judge Amy Berman Jackson. She can take into account the government's recommendation, the defense's recommendation and other factors and ultimately make the call on this. Outside of the courtroom, there is the possibility for political fallout here. Already, the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, has called on the Justice Department's inspector general to open an investigation into the Justice Department's talk of revising Stone's sentence.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks for your reporting.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.