President Donald Trump on Friday commuted the sentence for his longtime ally Roger Stone, a former Trump campaign adviser who had been sentenced to prison for lying to Congress during the Russia investigation, obstructing investigators, and tampering with witnesses.
Rather than spending 40 months in a federal prison, Stone “is now a free man,” according to a White House statement announcing the commutation. Stone was due to surrender to the Federal Bureau of Prisons on July 14.
For months, Trump had been publicly noncommittal about whether he’d grant Stone clemency, but made clear that he still supported the longtime Republican political operative. His tweets grew less subtle over time — on June 27, he retweeted a tweet that read, “IT’S TIME TO #PardonRogerStone."
Trump instead issued a commutation for Stone, thereby lightening the penalty, but leaving his underlying conviction intact.
“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,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement Friday evening.
“Mr. Stone, like every American, deserves a fair trial and every opportunity to vindicate himself before the courts. The President does not wish to interfere with his efforts to do so,” McEnany added. “At this time, however, and particularly in light of the egregious facts and circumstances surrounding his unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial, the President has determined to commute his sentence.”
Stone lost his second attempt at getting a new trial in April after US District Judge Amy Berman Jackson rejected his argument that a juror was biased because she’d criticized Trump on social media.
The judge had also refused Stone’s request to delay the date when he reported to prison until the fall. Stone’s lawyers had argued that he was at a “heightened risk of serious medical consequences” if he contracted COVID-19, and the Justice Department did not oppose the request. Jackson did agree to push back his surrender date by two weeks, but ordered him into home confinement — effectively imposing a quarantine period that the judge said would shield Stone from contracting the disease before he went to prison.
Although the Justice Department supported Stone’s original request to delay his surrender date to September, the government backed Jackson when Stone appealed to the DC Circuit. DOJ lawyers wrote in a July 9 filing that Jackson’s decision to only extend the date by two weeks was a “reasonable exercise” of her discretion.
Earlier Friday, about an hour before Trump announced he was commuting his sentence, the DC Circuit denied Stone's request to delay his prison sentence as well. McEnany cited the pandemic in her statement announcing Trump's decision to commute Stone's sentence, arguing that "Mr. Stone would be put at serious medical risk in prison."
Jackson’s ruling in April meant that Stone’s criminal case was officially over in the district court, and she lifted a gag order that had barred him from not only speaking publicly about his case, but also posting anything on social media.
In the weeks that followed the end of the gag order, Stone routinely used Instagram as a platform to make his case for a pardon, along with appearances on Fox News and radio interviews. But on Wednesday, Facebook announced that it had taken down Stone's Instagram account, along with accounts linked to the Proud Boys, a far-right, men-only extremist group, some of whom had volunteered for Stone and worked on his social media.
On April 30, Stone appealed his conviction and Jackson’s order denying him a new trial. That appeal was still pending when Trump announced that he’d granted Stone clemency.
Before Stone was sentenced in February, the case exploded into a national controversy over political overreach by the administration to protect a friend Trump once called a “loyal guy.”
Four federal prosecutors originally assigned to Stone’s case had filed papers with the court recommending a sentence of seven to nine years, but Trump balked, saying on Twitter that would be a “very unfair situation” and “miscarriage of justice!” Political appointees at the Justice Department quickly intervened to request a lighter punishment in February, prompting all four prosecutors to quit the case.
One of the prosecutors, Special Assistant US Attorney Aaron Zelinsky, had 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.”
Zelinsky, one of the prosecutors who withdrew from the case, testified before the House Judiciary Committee on June 24 that he understood that senior DOJ officials interfered because Trump wanted to “cut Stone a break.” Zelinsky told lawmakers that a supervisor told him that the interim US attorney in Washington, DC, at the time, Timothy Shea, was “afraid of the president.”
Stone is among several other members of the president’s inner orbit who’ve been convicted or pleaded guilty to federal crimes. The roster includes Trump campaign deputy chair Rick Gates; Trump administration former national security adviser Michael Flynn; Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen; former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos; and Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort. But Stone is the first prosecuted by Mueller’s team to have his sentence commuted by the president.
Trump has let allies off the hook before, including Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff convicted of defying a court order to stop profiling people as suspected undocumented immigrants. Trump pardoned Arpaio in August 2017, before Arpaio had been sentenced.
In November, a jury found Stone guilty on five counts of lying to Congress and one count each of witness tampering and obstruction of Congress.
He was arrested in January 2019 after former special counsel Robert Mueller’s office indicted him on charges of lying to the House Intelligence Committee 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.
Stone and Trump made phone calls in 2016, prosecutors showed, including the same day the DNC announced it had been hacked. Stone told Trump via speakerphone that the leaks were coming, but that he "did not know what the content of the materials was," to which Trump responded, "oh good, alright," according to unredacted transcript's of Mueller's report.
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. Court records indicate Stone told an unidentified person involved in Trump’s campaign, "Spoke to my friend in London last night. The payload is still coming.”
Prosecutors also say Stone “subsequently told the [Trump] supporter that more material would be released and that it would be damaging to the Clinton Campaign.”
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.”
House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff slammed Trump’s decision in a statement Friday. “President Trump has engaged in countless acts that are both self-serving and destructive to democracy while in office, but commuting the sentence of Roger Stone, a crony who lied and obstructed our investigation to protect Trump himself, is among the most offensive to the rule of law and principles of justice,” he said.
Stone also antagonized the court during his trial by posting an image on Instagram that portrayed 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.
Before Stone was sentenced, 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 had called for the lighter sentence. "This situation has all the indicia of improper political interference."