'Highly irregular': Legal experts blast DOJ’s abrupt sentencing reversal in Roger Stone case

'Highly irregular': Legal experts blast DOJ’s abrupt sentencing reversal in Roger Stone case
Image via Fox News.

After Sen. Susan Collins of Maine decided to vote “not guilty” on the two articles of impeachment that President Donald Trump had been indicted on, she asserted that he had learned a “pretty big lesson” and would be “much more cautious” in the future. But the week after Trump’s February 5 acquittal, Trump was facing yet another scandal —this time, one involving his interference in ally Roger Stone’s criminal case. And four legal experts (Mikhaila Fogel, Susan Hennessey, Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes) discuss that interference in an article published by Lawfare on February 11.

In November, Stone — a long-time GOP operative, self-described “dirty trickster” and unwavering Trump supporter — was convicted on seven criminal counts in federal court, including witness tampering and lying to Congress. On Monday, February 10, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a sentencing memo that recommended seven to nine years in prison for Stone. Trump angrily voiced his objections on Twitter, calling the guidelines “horrible and very unfair” — and the following day, the DOJ was walking back that recommendation.

In protest, four federal prosecutors withdrew from Stone’s case. And one of them, Jonathan Kravis, resigned from the DOJ altogether. Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, Adam C. Jed and Michael J. Mirando are still with the DOJ but are no longer working on Stone’s case.

“In the wake of the president’s tweet, everything changed,” Fogel, Hennessey, Jurecic  and Wittes explain in their Lawfare article. “The Justice Department quickly did a U-turn, announcing that it found the sentencing recommendation ‘extreme, excessive and grossly disproportionate.’ And so it was that, the day after it filed its first sentencing memo in Stone’s case, the government undercut itself and filed a second memo announcing that it had been grievously wrong the first time around.”

The four Lawfare writers note that it is “highly irregular” for the DOJ to change its sentencing guidelines so abruptly in a case.

“We don’t know exactly what might have gone on within the Justice Department during the hours between when the first Stone memo was filed and when the Department decided it had made an egregious error,” they write. “But it is highly irregular for the department to act as it did today, intervening to overrule career prosecutors to urge leniency for a presidential friend. To act as it did in the immediate wake of a presidential statement decrying the handling of the case —  and in the face of the withdrawal from the matter of the prosecutors in question — creates a heavy presumption of irregularity.”

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