Four federal prosecutors who rose to national prominence for their role in the Russia probe abruptly resigned their posts at the Justice Department on Tuesday as President Donald Trump and the Justice Department interfered in a case in order to lessen the punishment for Roger Stone, a presidential ally convicted of seven federal crimes.
In a surprise midafternoon filing at the US District Court in Washington, DC, Special Assistant United States Attorney Aaron Zelinsky wrote, "The Court is advised that the undersigned attorney has resigned effective immediately after this filing as a Special Assistant United States Attorney for District of Columbia.”
Zelinsky's filing kicked off a wave of resignations through the early evening.
Within minutes, two other top prosecutors in the case, Jonathan Kravis and Adam Jed, filed their own documents announcing their resignations. Kravis’s filing states that “he has resigned as an Assistant United States Attorney and therefore no longer represents the government in this matter.” An hour later, Michael Marando submitted a filing announcing that he was withdrawing from Stone's trial too — though his did not indicate whether he is resigning from his job as well.
The four had been lead prosecutors in the case against Stone — a close associate of Trump's — who is scheduled to be sentenced next Thursday, Feb. 20. A jury found Stone guilty on five counts of lying to Congress and one count each of witness tampering and obstruction of Congress in November.
Moments after the first three prosecutors quit, the Justice Department officially asked the court to grant Stone a lighter punishment than the one its own prosecutors had requested just the day before. The original sentencing filing had been signed by Zelinsky, Kravis, Jed, and Marando.
Stone was convicted of trying to cover up his communications with Trump allies and WikiLeaks about publishing documents illegally obtained by Russians from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign in order to help Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Prosecutors sought a sentence of up to nine years, according to a court filing on Monday night, the Washington Post reported. But following a splatter of aggrieved tweets from Trump, the Justice Department “intervened to overrule” them, pushing for “more lenient sentencing,” according to the New York Times. Trump on Tuesday morning had tweeted that the longer sentence would be a “horrible and very unfair situation” and “a miscarriage of justice!” Trump has not ruled out pardoning Stone.
Hours after the Times report was published, Zelinsky, Kravis, Jed, and Marando filed their notices of resignation. Zelinksy had worked with Mueller’s team since June 2017.
By late Tuesday afternoon, the Justice Department filed an "amended memorandum" proposing a sentence lighter than the one requested the day before by the four prosecutors who quit.
"Based on the facts known to the government, a sentence of between 87 to 108 months’ imprisonment ... could be considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances," said the filing led by Timothy Shea, the interim head of the US attorney’s office in Washington, DC, and longtime adviser to Attorney General Bill Barr.
The memo did not suggest a specific sentence, but said leniency was appropriate under sentencing guidelines based on Stone's "advanced age," the relatively short sentences given to others convicted in the Russia probe, and other factors. "Ultimately, the government defers to the Court as to what specific sentence is appropriate under the facts and circumstances of this case."
A Justice Department official did not immediately respond to questions about the resignations, reports of interference, or apparent efforts to protect Trump’s allies for political purposes.
Trump denied that he had spoken to the Justice Department about reducing Stone's sentencing recommendation during a gaggle with reporters at the White House Tuesday, but asserted that he had "the absolute right" to do so. Trump went on to say that the original sentencing recommendation was "ridiculous," a "horrible aberration," and "an insult to our country."
“These are, I guess, the same Mueller people that put everybody through hell. And I think it is a disgrace,” he added.
Trump declined to answer whether he’ll consider commuting Stone’s sentence, saying he didn’t “want to talk about that now.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asked the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General, an autonomous agency watchdog, to investigate who at DOJ and the White House called for the lighter sentence. "This situation has all the indicia of improper political interference," Schumer wrote in the letter to Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey said in a statement Tuesday, “This move to protect Donald Trump’s felon friend is obstruction of justice. Plain and simple.
“One day after announcing in a federal court that prosecutors would seek a harsh penalty for Donald Trump’s advisor, that recommendation is being lightened because of Trump’s Twitter temper tantrum,” he continued. “We are seeing a full-frontal assault on the rule of law in America. Direct political interference in our justice system is a hallmark of a banana republic. Despite whatever Trump, William Barr, and their helpers think, the United States is a nation of laws and not an authoritarian’s paradise.”
Stone was arrested in January 2019 after former special counsel Robert Mueller’s office indicted him on charges of lying to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. WikiLeaks had published emails, obtained by Russians, from the hacked servers of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Zelinsky told the jury when the trial began in November, “Evidence will show Roger Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee because the truth looked bad. The truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump.”
Stone and Trump made phone calls in 2016, prosecutors showed, including the same day the DNC announced it had been hacked, though the content of those phone calls remains unknown.
Although Stone denied being in contact with Assange, who was sequestered in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, prosecutors presented emails and text messages alleging he was repeatedly in touch with WikiLeaks and people involved in the Trump campaign about publishing the leaks. In 2016, Stone had also communicated with Guccifer 2.0, who had taken credit for the hack of the DNC's computers (Mueller’s office later charged 12 Russians with the hack). Stone called his communications “innocuous.”
Stone also antagonized the court during his trial by posting an image on Instagram that portrayed US District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson with what appeared to be gun crosshairs next to her head. Jackson responded by barring him from speaking publicly about his case or Mueller’s investigation for the rest of the trial.
Trump's personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, tried to distance the president from Stone in a statement at the time of his arrest. "The indictment today does not allege Russian collusion by Roger Stone or anyone else,” Sekulow said at the time. “Rather, the indictment focuses on alleged false statements Mr. Stone made to Congress."
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