The United States is in the grip of a pandemic that already has killed more than 130,000 Americans; tens of thousands more will likely die in the months ahead. The U.S. economy is in free fall while businesses collapse and jobs vanish. We are now virtual pariahs on the international stage, locked out of Canada and the European Union due to the federal government’s failure to contain the coronavirus. And President Trump does not seem to care.
On Friday night, he instead turned his attention to more urgent matters by commuting the prison sentence of Roger Stone, a longtime Republican political adviser and Trump aide. A federal jury convicted Stone last year of lying to Congress during the Russia investigation and threatening another witness who could contradict him. In Trumpworld, this makes him a hero. “Roger Stone has already suffered greatly,” the White House said in a statement. “He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!”
Trump’s decision to wipe away Stone’s three-year, four-month prison sentence is purportedly about the Russia investigation, the prosecutors who led it, and their supposed mistreatment of Stone. But it is really about the president himself. Organized crime syndicates rely on a simple but potent act of fealty: If you protect the boss, the boss will eventually protect you. So does the Trump administration. By commuting Stone’s sentence, Trump has ably protected himself—and cemented his status as the most corrupt president in the nation’s history.
The facts of Stone’s case are largely indisputable. In the spring of 2016, Russian intelligence operatives carried out cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. They absconded with troves of internal emails and documents—some mundane, some embarrassing. Those materials made their way to WikiLeaks, which had a history of publishing sensitive information about the U.S. government. By April, Stone had told Trump campaign officials that he was in contact with WikiLeaks about the material. Rick Gates, a top Trump campaign aide, later testified that he heard Stone tell Trump by phone in July 2016 that a damaging WikiLeaks release was imminent.
Shortly before the Democratic National Convention in late July, WikiLeaks published thousands of internal DNC emails, some of which show top Democratic officials favoring Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders during the primaries. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned on the eve of the convention, amid bad blood between the two camps. Over the next few months, Stone publicly and privately bragged that he was in contact with WikiLeaks and that more dirt would be coming. His predictions reached a fever pitch in October, shortly before WikiLeaks released Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s stolen emails as well.
Stone’s antics drew intense scrutiny after the election, as investigators probed links between the Trump campaign and Russian meddling. Congressional investigators questioned Stone at length about his direct interactions with WikiLeaks as well as communications through an intermediary. Stone chose to lie multiple times to the House Intelligence Committee about what had happened. He also threatened witnesses who could contradict his version of events. When radio host and former WikiLeaks intermediary Randy Credico said he would release information about what had happened, Stone bombarded him with angry, graphic messages. “I am so ready,” read one of his emails. “Let’s get it on. Prepare to die cock sucker.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office charged Stone last year on seven counts, including making false statements to Congress and witness tampering. Stone did not conduct himself well at trial: Judge Amy Berman Jackson imposed a gag order on him after he posted an image of Jackson’s face next to crosshairs on Instagram. A D.C. jury found him guilty in November. Federal prosecutors initially recommended a sentence of seven to nine years in prison. Then Attorney General Bill Barr and the Justice Department’s upper ranks intervened on Stone’s behalf, withdrawing that recommendation and submitting a far more lenient one in its place.
“What I heard—repeatedly—was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the president,” Aaron Zelinsky, one of the federal prosecutors who quit the case in protest, told Congress last month. “I was told that the acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Timothy Shea, was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice to cut Stone a break and that the U.S. attorney’s sentencing instructions to us were based on political considerations. I was also told that the acting U.S. attorney was giving Stone such unprecedentedly favorable treatment because he was ‘afraid of the president.’”
If the Justice Department showed the same care and concern for the defendants’ well-being in every case it pursued, it could defend its special circumstances for Stone. If the attorney general’s office showed the same zeal in opposing lengthy sentences for every defendant it prosecuted, it could justify its intervention in this case. If Trump was willing to free federal prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes who weren’t his friends or allies, he could claim a fig leaf of credibility here. Instead, the White House spent the last few weeks threatening protesters with 10-year prison sentences for vandalizing statues. The Trump administration believes in prison abolition for its henchmen and mass incarceration for everyone else.
Trump’s commutation of Stone’s sentence was inevitable, in a way: The implicit oath of fealty between boss and underling cuts both ways. In a redacted portion of the Mueller report, the special counsel’s office noted that Trump was less than truthful when answering written questions about Stone from investigators. Mueller’s team said it found evidence that Trump “intended to reinforce Stone’s public statements that he would not cooperate with the government when the president likely understood that Stone could potentially provide evidence that would be adverse to the president.” It went on:
On November 28, 2018, eight days after the President submitted his written answers to the Special Counsel, the President criticized “flipping” and said that Stone was “very brave” for not cooperating with prosecutors. Five days later, on December 3, 2018, the President applauded Stone for having the “guts” not to testify against him. These statements, as well as those complimenting Stone and Manafort while disparaging Michael Cohen once Cohen chose to cooperate, support the inference that the President intended to communicate a message that witnesses could be rewarded for refusing to provide testimony adverse to the President and disparaged if they chose to cooperate.
Most people probably imagine corruption taking place in hushed conversations behind closed doors, where it can only be unearthed by tenacious journalists or well-equipped prosecutors. Trump’s greatest innovation is to simply carry out his corrupt acts in plain sight. Sure, he could have quietly passed along a secret message to Stone or Manafort that promised support if they didn’t turn against him. But why go to the trouble? A few posts on Twitter and a casual remark in a TV interview will accomplish the same goal. Broad daylight also helps obscure the sinister implications. If it was really so bad, the average observer might ask, why would he do it in public?
So what is to be done about this? A president’s decision to pardon or commute is final and irrevocable; neither Congress nor the courts can overturn it. And yet Stone’s commutation can only be described as a quintessential abuse of power. The House of Representatives would be fully justified in opening an impeachment inquiry into the move. (A Senate trial may be impossible during a pandemic, however.) If Barr had any sense of honor or integrity, he would resign in protest. If Republican senators who aren’t Mitt Romney had any self-respect, they would condemn the president’s corruption and work to remove him from office.
But Americans should not expect any of these people or institutions to hold Trump accountable in any meaningful way. The president cares only about himself and his own survival, and too many people in power care only about satisfying him to achieve their own goals. If Americans want to see the president punished for his corruption, they will have to do it themselves in November.