President Donald Trump’s decision to commute the sentence of longtime political confidant Roger Stone late Friday night drew the usual outrage from Democrats and silence from Republicans – yet another norm busted by a man who seems to revel in doing things that no one who has held the job in the past would even consider.
And then, people, well, sort of moved on. Trump and his team began an orchestrated – and beyond-the-pale – attack on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease. The President played golf and self-consciously took to Twitter to defend his right to do so. New polls came out that showed Trump in trouble in three GOP-friendly states now battling spikes in the coronavirus.
It’s a now-familiar pattern with Trump and his administration. The President does or says something totally outrageous. Everyone freaks out for 24 hours. And then he does another outrageous thing, and the previous outrage is forgotten or cast to the side. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Except that the Stone commutation shouldn’t be so quickly forgotten or replaced by the latest outrage. Because it represents not just a misuse of presidential power but also will have long-term impacts on the ways in which future presidents consider their pardon and commutation powers.
Consider what Stone was convicted of by a jury of his peers: seven charges including lying to Congress about his contacts with Trump campaign officials in regards the release of a series of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s servers by the Russians and subsequently posted on the website WikiLeaks.
This, from CNN’s write-up of the initial indictment brought by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office against Stone, lays out that allegation nicely:
“On October 7, 2016, after WikiLeaks released its first set of then-Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, prosecutors say Stone received a text message from ‘an associate of the high-ranking Trump campaign official’ that said ‘well done,’ signaling that the Trump campaign was looped in on Stone’s quest for dirt on Democrats.
“The associate and the high-ranking campaign official are not named in the complaint, though the indictment describes how Stone told a reporter that what Assange had in the unreleased emails was good for the Trump campaign. Stone responded at the time, ‘I’d tell [the high-ranking Trump Campaign official] but he doesn’t call me back’.”
“An email matching that wording that was published by The New York Times shows that the official Stone referred to was Steve Bannon.
“After the October 7 releases, Stone boasted to ‘senior Trump Campaign officials’ that he had correctly predicted the data dump, prosecutors say.”
Stone repeatedly insisted publicly, and in testimony to Congress, that he had not attempted to contact to WikiLeaks and had not tried to serve as any sort of intermediary between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during the release of the emails, which were aimed at harming Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Then there is the fact that Stone was convicted of attempting to tamper with a witness – radio talk show host Randy Credico – in the Mueller investigation, urging Credico, who Stone claimed was his backchannel to WikiLeaks, to lie to congressional investigators. Stone also threatened Credico if he did not, suggesting he would take Credico’s therapy dog – Bianca – and texting Credico “prepare to die [expletive].”
These are not small crimes. Let’s be very clear what Stone did: He lied to Congress about his efforts to find out what WikiLeaks had in terms of hacked emails that were designed to damage Clinton. He also threatened someone – with death – unless that person lied to Congress about the nature of his role in the backchanneling of WikiLeaks information.
As Mueller wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend:
“A jury later determined [Stone] lied repeatedly to members of Congress. He lied about the identity of his intermediary to WikiLeaks. He lied about the existence of written communications with his intermediary. He lied by denying he had communicated with the Trump campaign about the timing of WikiLeaks’ releases. He in fact updated senior campaign officials repeatedly about WikiLeaks. And he tampered with a witness, imploring him to stonewall Congress.”
And now Stone has been rewarded with a commutation of what was to be a 40-month prison sentence set to start Tuesday – not because he didn’t do what he was convicted of doing but rather because a) he stayed loyal to Trump (“There is no circumstance whatsoever under which I will bear false witness against the president,” Stone said when he was formally indicted) and b) his conviction played into Trump’s deep-seated resentments that the fact that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to help him somehow invalidates his victory.
“Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency,” read the official White House statement on the Stone commutation. “There was never any collusion between the Trump Campaign, or the Trump Administration, with Russia. Such collusion was never anything other than a fantasy of partisans unable to accept the result of the 2016 election.”
(Sidebar: From the odd capitalization to the tone of the statement, it seems clear that Trump wrote the statement or played a major role in its construction.)
And, Stone is not only not going to jail. He appears to be ready to spend the next four months on a sort of victory tour for Trump – a living, breathing example of how the President can triumph over the so-called “Deep State.” That victory lap starts Monday night with an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. Stone also told Axios on Sunday that he plans to write a book “about this entire ordeal to, once and for all, put to bed the myth of Russian collusion” and will campaign for the President in the fall.
Stunning stuff, with a deeply-problematic message underlying it all.
That message? Utah Sen. Mitt Romney put it best in a Saturday tweet:
“Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president.”