In an extraordinary move, all four federal prosecutors who took the case against longtime Donald Trump confidant Roger Stone to trial withdrew Tuesday after top Justice Department officials undercut them and disavowed the government’s recommended sentence against Stone.
The mass withdrawal of the career prosecutors on the case was a stunning response to the controversial and politically charged decision by Attorney General William Barr and other top Justice Department officials to reduce prosecutors’ recommended sentence of up to nine years, which came just hours after Trump publicly criticized it on Twitter.
The rapid-fire developments in the case – the prosecutors’ withdrawals came one by one through court filings over the course of two hours Tuesday afternoon – spilled tensions between Justice Department brass and the career prosecutors into the open, raising questions about the Justice Department’s independence from political pressure. In a new filing Tuesday, the US Attorney’s Office in Washington revised the sentencing recommendation to be “far less” than the seven-to-nine years recommended on Monday. It was not signed by any of the prosecutors who worked the case.
Ultimately, the presiding judge in the case will have the final say on Stone’s sentence.
Trump denied any involvement in the sentencing revision, but the turnaround drew howls from congressional Democrats, who called for the Justice Department inspector general to investigate.
“It is outrageous that DOJ has deeply damaged the rule of law by withdrawing its recommendation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, tweeted Tuesday. “Stepping down of prosecutors should be commended & actions of DOJ should be investigated.”
Of the four prosecutors who withdrew from the case – Aaron S.J. Zelinsky, Jonathan Kravis, Adam Jed and Mike Marando – Zelinsky and Kravis also resigned from the DC US attorney’s office. Zelinsky, who worked on former special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, did not resign from the Baltimore US attorney’s office, where he is based.
The mass withdrawal was set in motion on Monday when the prosecutors from the DC US Attorney’s office, who are Justice Department employees, wrote in a filing that Stone should be sentenced seven to nine years in prison after he was convicted on seven charges last year that came out of Mueller’s investigation, including lying to Congress and witness tampering.
Trump weighed in on Twitter overnight on Tuesday, calling it 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 said. On Tuesday afternoon, Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that he didn’t ask the Justice Department to change the sentencing recommendation.
By midday Tuesday, a senior Justice Department official said that the original sentencing recommendation from the prosecutors, transmitted to a judge and signed off on by the office’s top prosecutor, had not been communicated to leadership at the Justice Department.
“The Department was shocked to see the sentencing recommendation,” the official told CNN. “The Department believes the recommendation is extreme and excessive and is grossly disproportionate to Stone’s offenses.”
In the revised sentencing recommendation, filed Tuesday afternoon, federal prosecutors asked for Stone to still be sentenced to prison, but said it should be “far less” than the office had asked for a day earlier. The prosecutors declined to say how much time in prison Stone should serve.
“While it remains the position of the United States that a sentence of incarceration is warranted here, the government respectfully submits that the range of 87 to 108 months presented as the applicable advisory Guidelines range would not be appropriate or serve the interests of justice in this case,” the prosecutors write.
The decision to make the change was directed by the leadership of the Justice Department, the official said. The department made the decision before the President’s tweet and without consultation with the White House, according to Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman. The White House referred a request for comment to the Justice Department, and the US attorney’s office in Washington declined to comment.
Later Tuesday, Trump attacked the prosecutors in a series of tweets, saying they “cut and ran” and asking if they were “Mueller people.”
Grant Smith, an attorney for Stone, said they look forward to reviewing the government’s latest filing shortly.
“We have read with interest the new reporting on Roger Stone’s case. Our sentencing memo outlined our position on the recommendation made yesterday by the government. We look forward to reviewing the government’s supplemental filing,” Smith said in a statement. Stone’s attorneys had argued a sentence of 15 to 21 months would be appropriate.
In between the two sentencing recommendations, the mass exodus from the Stone case began.
Zelinsky, who is based at the Baltimore US attorney’s office, was the Mueller prosecutor most closely associated with Stone’s case while it was being investigated, and also played a significant role in questioning witnesses at Stone’s trial. He stayed with the Stone case following the closure of Mueller’s office and “resigned effective immediately after this filing” from his role in the DC US attorney’s office, he wrote to the judge on Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for the Baltimore US attorney’s office said Tuesday afternoon that Zelinsky had not resigned from his position there.
After Zelinsky’s filing, Kravis told the court he was also withdrawing from the case and resigning from the DC US attorney’s office. Jed and Marando soon followed with withdrawals of their own, making clear that the revised sentencing recommendation prompted all four prosecutors who worked on the Stone case to leave it.
Marando delivered a passionate closing argument to the jury at Stone’s trial: “Truth matters,” he told the jury.
The US attorney’s office in Washington declined to comment on the resignations. John Crabb, another prosecutor in the DC US attorney’s Office, has announced he’ll work on the Stone case.
A senior Justice Department official acknowledged that the four Stone prosecutors appeared to resign in protest after their recommended sentence was reduced by senior leadership at justice.
In a briefing earlier Tuesday, the official tried to downplay the significance of the department’s reversal as a “breakdown” in communication between prosecutors in the field and leadership, despite the extraordinary spectacle of all four prosecutors quitting the case in response.
The crux of the behind the scenes disagreement between the prosecutors on the Stone case and main justice leadership appears to be over whether Stone should get additional years of punishment for the witness tampering charge and other “aggravating offenses.”
Prosecutors on Monday had requested the judge enhance Stone’s sentence in line with a strict interpretation of the charges. Without the enhancement, the prosecutor’s sentencing recommendation would be years lighter – more in line with what the senior department official had said was due in the case.
But having such a disagreement lead to a change and downplaying of the original sentencing recommendation is not a common occurrence.
Shock over department’s move
It’s not immediately clear whether the Justice Department’s revised recommendation will affect the decision of Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who will have broad authority to sentence Stone as she sees fit on February 20.
But the move to overrule federal prosecutors after they’ve already made a public commitment is rare, and quickly reverberated throughout the ranks of career Justice Department employees, with prosecutors from another high-profile US attorney’s office expressing shock to CNN.
Tensions have simmered at the department in recent months over Barr’s penchant to be closely involved in matters big and small in the department, Justice officials say. The attorney general has a reputation as a micro-manager and that has manifested itself in odd ways.
Barr in recent weeks appointed Timothy Shea, a close aide, to be acting US attorney in Washington in a clumsy transition with the former US Attorney Jessie Liu, who was moving to a post at the Treasury Department.
Liu had been waiting to move to the new job, but Barr’s move to appoint Shea while Liu was still awaiting her hearing created an awkward transition.
Shea had qualms about the sentencing recommendation on Stone made by line prosecutors, but went along with it, perhaps as a way to win over his troops in the office, one official said
Barr’s decision to disavow and sharply criticize a decision made by Shea severely undermines him in his new job, officials say.
Federal prosecutors and a person convicted of crimes both have the opportunity to submit a memorandum to the court ahead of their sentencing hearing, asking for certain amounts of prison time or less severe punishments. At the sentencing hearing, they’ll speak again to the judge about their wishes before the judge makes a final decision.
Liu’s nomination withdrawn
Trump on Tuesday abruptly withdrew the nomination for Liu, the former US attorney who headed the office that oversaw Stone’s prosecution, to serve in a top Treasury Department position, three sources told CNN.
Liu was nominated in December to serve as the Treasury Department’s under secretary for terrorism and financial crimes. She previously headed the US attorney’s office that oversaw the prosecution and conviction of Trump’s longtime political adviser until Barr replaced her last month, and she also led the team that worked on the sentencing of former Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates.
One of the sources on Tuesday did not dismiss the idea that the withdrawal was connected to the Stone case development.
Liu was informed the White House had withdrawn her nomination Tuesday, according to two sources.
Channing Phillips, Liu’s predecessor as US attorney in DC, said Tuesday night that the day’s “developments are deeply troubling.”
“Without knowing all of the details, the mere fact that all four of the line prosecutors withdrew from the case, as has been reported, suggests undue meddling by higher ups at DOJ or elsewhere,” Phillips said in a statement.
“While it is not uncommon for a USAO to consult with Main Justice in such high profile matters (indeed, it is required for certain matters), it is unprecedented to have a USAO dramatically change their sentencing recommendation after its memorandum has been filed unless there has been a change in circumstances or facts,” he said, adding: “One simply cannot reconcile the two sentencing memoranda filed by the USAO.”
Trump has faced intense lobbying to pardon Stone
Trump was outraged after the prosecutors filed the sentencing memo, and has continued to fume about it privately, multiple people said. The question at hand, of course, is whether Trump will pardon one of his longest-serving advisers.
Several of Stone’s allies have stepped up their lobbying efforts in recent weeks, appealing to Trump by discussing Stone’s devastating legal fees and highlighting the damage to his family. But there are also multiple people who have advised Trump that pardoning his former adviser would be harmful politically during his run for reelection.