Trump’s Roger Stone power play reveals a presidency unleashed
CNN’s John Avlon examines the actions of President Trump and his administration one week after his acquittal in the impeachment trial, including the firings of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland as well as the intervention of the Justice Department in the case of longtime Trump ally Roger Stone.
By bulldozing into Roger Stone’s sentencing, Donald Trump sparked a mutiny by four career prosecutors, raised fears about the impartial administration of justice and showed how his impeachment acquittal unchained an already rampant presidency.
The Justice Department’s decision to water down a recommendation by its own prosecutors for Stone to serve up to nine years in prison that outraged the President sent shockwaves through Washington. It also appears to reflect Trump’s redoubled determination to escalate pressure on core institutions of the US government to pursue his personal and political priorities.
Wednesday morning, he brazenly offered congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for “taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought,” even though multiple courts have upheld former special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment, his authority, and the decisions he made.
The sudden storm over Stone, triggered by an early-hours tweet by the President, is part of an accelerating pattern of unmoderated behavior since Trump was found not guilty of impeachable offenses a week ago by Republican senators — some of whom expressed the hope that the scar of impeachment would temper his wildest impulses.
Instead, the President appears to have drawn a lesson about impunity from his experience and seems committed to accelerating his bid to subvert constitutional and political norms. This may augur a period of expansive power plays by the President — as he runs for reelection and that could become even more intense if he wins a second term.
In another sign of his defiance, Trump last week fired officials, including White House Ukraine specialist Lt. Col Alexander Vindman, who were subpoenaed to testify in the impeachment inquiry in a manner that might have been interpreted as witness intimidation in a regular context and is likely to chill future accountability. On Tuesday, he said that he would “certainly” expect the military to look at disciplining Vindman, who testified that he was troubled by the President’s call with Ukraine’s President in July.
Trump has also launched searing personal attacks on senators who voted to convict him, and questioned the faith of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who led the impeachment process there.
Stone was convicted by a jury of lying to Congress and witness tampering. The Justice Department reversal that triggered the remarkable resignations of four top prosecutors in the case could fuel an impression that cronies of the President can commit crimes and get special treatment. It also poses the question of whether political appointees are undercutting the work of career prosecutors in a way that could prejudice the rule of law.
“This is completely stunning. I have seen thousands of cases in my career as a federal and state prosecutor. I have never seen anything like this,” CNN legal analyst Elie Honig told Jake Tapper. “It stinks to high hell. There are all sorts of problems here. This is not normal.”
Trump denies he intervened
Trump denied he had asked the Justice Department to lower the sentencing recommendations concerning Stone but he said that the idea that his longtime friend and fixer should spend up to nine years in prison was ridiculous and attacked the federal prosecutors who conducted the case.
“I thought the whole prosecution was ridiculous and I look at others who haven’t been prosecuted. That was a horrible aberration, these, I guess the same Mueller people who put everybody through hell,” the President said.
Trump also risked exacerbating the controversy by insisting that although he hadn’t barged into the Stone case “I’d be able to do it if I wanted.”
“I have the absolute right to do it,” Trump said in a previously unscheduled appearance before reporters.
Trump’s comment ignored the fact that as he often has in other contexts, he made his move on Stone in plain sight — in a tweet — rather than in some suspicious behind-the-scenes intervention.
Even if the Justice Department was not reacting directly to the President’s desires, the impression that it was is just as damaging.
The impartial administration of justice does not just require actual separation between politics and the law. The Justice Department’s reputation and the credibility of the rule of law rests on the impression that such a situation prevails.
The President’s move crystallized the argument of Democrats competing in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary that Trump — through such actions as firing former FBI chief James Comey over the Russia probe — constantly abuses his power.
Pelosi sent a tweet Tuesday night criticizing Trump for engaging in “political interference” in the Stone sentencing.
“It is outrageous that DOJ has deeply damaged the rule of law by withdrawing its recommendation. Stepping down of prosecutors should be commended & actions of DOJ should be investigated,” Pelosi wrote.
But such criticism is unlikely to harm Trump among his most committed supporters, who have bought into his claims of “dirty cops” and “scum” operating in a “Deep State” at the Justice Department.
Barr in the middle of yet another controversy
The highly unusual episode over Stone will also fuel concerns among legal experts that Barr is functioning increasingly as a political functionary for Trump.
The department said there was no coordination with the White House on Stone’s sentence. Yet the President’s public tweet leaves the clear impression that he is meddling in the case.
Trump has made no secret of his view that the Justice Department should pursue his political enemies and protect him. Multiple recent actions by Barr have appeared to favor the President and tarnished the department’s reputation for the impartial administration of justice — a pillar of the political system.
In recent days, Barr has said his department is looking at information provided by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani alleging misconduct by Joe Biden and his son in Ukraine. Trump and his allies have repeatedly made unfounded and false claims to allege that the Bidens acted corruptly in Ukraine. Barr has also warned that federal investigations into political campaigns must be vetted by the senior political leadership at Justice.
Barr named US Attorney John Durham to investigate the origin of the FBI’s investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia, after calls for such a probe by the President.
In his most controversial intervention, Barr wrote to Congress last year about the conclusions of Mueller’s report before it was released, prompting the special counsel to complain that the Attorney General did not capture the character of his findings.
Career prosecutors handling the Stone case made an aggressive sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years in prison over a conviction based on seven charges.
But a senior Justice Department official told CNN the finding was “extreme and excessive” and disproportionate to Stone’s offenses and was not communicated to department leaders.
The backtrack came after Trump sent out a tweet complaining about the recommendation in the middle of the night.
“This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” Trump wrote.
The tweet immediately sparked fresh speculation that the President would use his executive powers to pardon Stone — whose attorneys had argued for a maximum sentence of 15 to 21 months.
The final decision on sentencing will be left to the judge in the case Amy Berman Jackson. Some legal experts have said that the seven to nine years recommendation was harsh, though it was the product of a table of sentencing guidelines.
In an updated filing to the court late Tuesday afternoon, the department did not specify how much jail time it wanted to receive but called for a sentence for “far less” than it had originally requested.
Democrats demand accountability
The swift reaction to the Stone controversy from top Democrats signaled the House still intends to wield its checks and balances powers to seek to constrain Trump, even given the failure of the impeachment effort to oust him from office.
Senate Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer called on the Justice Department’s inspector general to launch an investigation.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, said that his panel would investigate the Stone sentencing matter.
“A President who intervenes in the criminal justice system to help his allies, while punishing people like Lt. Col. Vindman for telling the truth, represents a real danger and the Committee will get to the bottom of this,” Nadler tweeted.
The lead House impeachment manager, California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who warned senators during the trial that Trump’s acquittal would prompt the President to reach for even more illicit power, called the Trump administration the gravest threat to the rule of law in a generation.
“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,” Schiff said.
“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.
Three prosecutors who worked on the Stone case quit soon after the department backtracked on its sentencing memo.
Aaron Zelinsky and Jonathan Kravis also resigned from the DC US Attorney’s office and Adam Jed and Michael Marando filed memos to withdraw from the Stone case.
Ironically, the danger posed to America’s institutions of governance by political interference was at the center of final arguments in the Stone case made by Marando.
“In our institutions of self-governance, committee hearings, courts of law … truth still matters,” Marando said.