“You know, the saddest thing is that because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” President Donald Trump said in a radio interview in November 2017. “I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.”
That frustration likely ended on Tuesday as the Justice Department finally and fully bowed to Trump’s whims by urging a court to go easy on one of his allies. One day earlier, on Monday, federal prosecutors said in a court filing that they would recommend a prison sentence of seven to nine years. “Roger Stone obstructed Congress’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, lied under oath, and tampered with a witness,” the department originally said on Monday. “And when his crimes were revealed by the indictment in this case, he displayed contempt for this court and the rule of law.”
Stone, a longtime Republican political operative with a reputation for dirty tricks, was found guilty in November of witness tampering and lying to Congress. The charges stem from his efforts to obstruct the federal and congressional inquiries into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russian meddling. During the 2016 election, Stone had served as an intermediary of sorts between WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the Trump campaign in a semitransparent attempt to get dirt on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton from foreign sources.
In a series of late-night posts on Twitter, Trump denounced the prospective sentence for his longtime political ally. “This is a horrible and very unfair situation,” he wrote. “The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” By late Tuesday morning, the Justice Department’s upper ranks began signaling that it would revise the sentencing recommendation downward. While department officials anonymously denied any connection between their actions and the president’s tweet to The New York Times and The Washington Post, the timing was unmistakable.
The second filing, which was sent to the court on Friday afternoon, bore the signatures of Timothy Shea, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and John Crabb Jr., the acting chief of that office’s criminal division. It reads more like an argument on Stone’s behalf than an adversarial attempt to prosecute him. While it still recommends a prison sentence for Stone, it does not suggest the length. Instead the filing tells the court that it was “unclear to what extent the defendant’s obstructive conduct actually prejudiced the government at trial,” undercutting the case made by line prosecutors to convict him. It also asks the court to take into account the defendant’s “advanced age, health, personal circumstances, and lack of criminal history.” (Stone is 67 years old.)
The department’s extraordinary intervention to lessen the legal consequences for one of the president’s allies drew a series of resignations and departures from the line prosecutors assigned to the case. Aaron Zelinsky, one of the top members of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, told the court he was withdrawing from the case and leaving the D.C. office. (He will likely return to his original job at the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore.) Two other assistant U.S. attorneys, Jonathan Kravis and Adam Jed, said they were leaving the case as well. Kravis told the court he had resigned from the Justice Department entirely. Later in the day, a fourth—Michael J. Marando—also resigned from the case.
Their departures follow a wave of dismissals that have transpired since the Senate acquitted Trump last Wednesday. On Friday, the president ousted Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council staffer who specialized in Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Both men had testified before the House impeachment inquiry last fall. Vindman’s brother Yevgeny, a National Security Council lawyer, was also fired. The White House is also reportedly planning to scuttle acting Pentagon comptroller Elaine McCusker’s nomination for that job because she questioned the decision to freeze military aid for Ukraine last year.
None of Trump’s inveigling of the Justice Department, however, would be possible without the complicity of Attorney General Bill Barr and other political appointees. Barr has proven to be the president’s most effective loyalist. Long before today’s machinations, Barr abetted Trump by watering down the Mueller Report’s findings, with an eye toward lessening the political fallout, and disputing an inspector general’s report that undercut Trumpworld conspiracy theories. Earlier this week, he revealed that he would personally serve as a clearinghouse for Trump fixer Rudy Giuliani’s evidence against the Bidens, raising the prospect of a politicized prosecution against them in an election year.
That fealty comes at no cost to Barr himself. He has long argued for a monarchical presidency, at least while Republicans hold the office, and he is more than willing to serve as its Tudor-era lord chancellor. Nevertheless, it comes at a severe cost for the Justice Department. The Watergate crisis saw one attorney general resign in protest and another one convicted and imprisoned for his crimes. Since then, the department has sought to keep itself at arm’s length from the White House and the partisan interests of whoever lived in it.
That once bipartisan tradition was already under siege in the Trump era, hammered relentlessly by the president’s eagerness to use the department’s immense powers to protect his friends and harm his enemies. It was on life support after Mueller’s departure and Barr’s ascension to the highest post. Now it is finally gone—and with it, any justifications for public confidence in the Justice Department’s decisions, as well as a vital touchstone for the American rule of law.