President Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone’s sentence — over the objections of some aides and without the involvement of his administration’s pardon office — allowed an old friend to jump to the front of the slowest and longest line of federal inmates seeking mercy in decades.
Stone is emblematic of the very few people to receive clemency from Trump, with most being political allies who appealed directly to the White House instead of following Justice Department protocol.
But Stone stands out as the first whose conviction grew from an investigation that also examined the president’s conduct. In an interview this past week, Stone boasted of resisting pressure from prosecutors to implicate the president and predicted that Trump would reward his loyalty.
A juror in Stone’s 2019 trial called Trump’s announcement a “shocking act of corruption for the president to commute the sentence of a person convicted of lying to protect him.” Stone was convicted of seven felonies, including lying to Congress about his efforts to figure out what WikiLeaks had planned during the 2016 election so he could help Trump’s campaign with the information.
The juror, Seth Cousins, 51, told The Washington Post: “The fact remains that Roger Stone is a convicted felon, that he was found guilty of seven counts of lying to Congress and intimidating a witness and of impeding an investigation. Nothing that Trump or anyone has done or can do changes that fact.”
In early February, the Trump campaign chose a black great-grandmother he had freed from prison in 2018, Alice Marie Johnson, to star in a Super Bowl ad touting the president’s record on criminal justice. Stone is a more accurate face of clemency under Trump — the trickle of recipients has largely been white men with political connections or currency with the president’s most loyal supporters.
Johnson, who had served about 22 years for a first-time, nonviolent drug crime, had a line into the White House, too, in that her case was championed by reality-television star Kim Kardashian West.
“This is a constitutional crisis in that the pardon power is a constitutional tool given to the president to address injustices, and the president has not fulfilled that duty,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota who runs a clinic representing inmates seeking clemency. “The messages I am getting today from people with loved ones in prison are filled with anguish: ‘Why [Stone] and not my son? Why him and not my husband?’ ”
Roughly 13,500 inmates who have sought clemency are in limbo, according to the Justice Department’s website.
A senior administration official said there were serious divisions among Trump’s aides and allies over Stone’s case, with some cautioning that keeping him out of prison could be politically risky. Among those opposed was Attorney General William P. Barr, who called the prosecution “righteous” in an interview Wednesday with ABC News, the official said, adding that those pushing Trump to show loyalty to Stone included Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who is close to the president.
By Saturday, Trump had grown frustrated that he was not getting more credit from conservative media and others for the Stone announcement, the official said. A second administration official said Trump had been warned that the commutation could depress his lagging poll numbers, but he wanted to make a statement against the Russia investigation and help Stone, and he personally worked to craft the messaging to defend the commutation.
There was intense and lingering interest in Trump’s orbit, personally and politically, to “make things right for Roger,” according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. A second Trump aide added that Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson’s on-air urging of the president to help Stone was even more significant.
“I never lobbied any White House official or the president,” Newsmax chief executive Christopher Ruddy, a longtime Trump and Stone associate, said in an interview, but he noted that he publicly called for the commutation of Stone’s sentence.
The White House on Saturday declined to comment on the commutation of Stone’s 40-month sentence.
A senior administration official said the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney was not involved in discussions about Stone’s commutation. That has been true for a number of people who have received clemency from Trump despite failing to file petitions with the pardon office or meet its requirements.
Earlier this year, Barr conveyed to White House officials that he thought commuting Stone’s sentence was a bad idea, according to people familiar with the discussions, but the senior administration official said there have been no conversations on the subject between the attorney general and the White House for months.
Barr angered some Justice Department lawyers this year when he and his deputies pushed career prosecutors in the Stone case to soften their sentencing recommendation. Ultimately, the judge gave Stone a sentence closer to what Barr had sought, but Aaron Zelinsky, one of the Stone prosecutors, told Congress last month that Barr and his deputies’ actions in the case were “based on political considerations.”
Stone and his lawyer, Bruce Rogow, did not respond to requests for comment Friday and Saturday.
Despite the national groundswell for racial equity in recent weeks after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, the commutation for Stone shows the president continuing to take his clemency cues from celebrities, political allies and Fox News. Trump is within his rights; Clemency is one of the most unlimited powers bestowed on the president by the Constitution.
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh defended the president’s action on Stone’s sentence as “the right thing to do.”
“Roger Stone was targeted by the same partisan witch hunt Democrats have used to harass President Trump,” he said. “Democrats don’t care how many lives they ruin in their reckless and obsessive drive to undermine the president.”
Trump has waged a years-long campaign to undermine the special counsel investigation into his 2016 campaign. Some supporters also are urging him to pardon Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser who pleaded guilty, as part of the special counsel probe, to lying to the FBI but then sought to withdraw his plea.
The Justice Department is trying to dismiss the charges against Flynn, which would make the pardon unnecessary, but this past week a federal judge asked the full D.C. appellate court to review whether he can hold hearings and explore whether Flynn was given preferential treatment before dismissing the case.
Trump told reporters Saturday that Stone had been treated “very unfairly” and compared his friend’s predicament to Flynn’s. But asked whether he would consider pardoning Flynn, as well as George Papadopoulos, another former campaign aide who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, Trump did not answer.
“People are extremely happy because, in this country, they want justice, and Roger Stone was not treated properly,” he said. “I’m very happy with what I did.”
Stone’s commutation was the latest sign that the pardon office, which for 125 years has served as a key adviser to the White House on clemency, has been sidelined during this administration.
Federal offenders file petitions with the pardon office for commutations that shorten their sentences or for pardons that erase the civil consequences of criminal convictions, including limits on gun ownership, jury service and voting rights.
The pardon office’s decisions undergo scrutiny by the deputy attorney general, the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, who makes final recommendations to the Office of White House Counsel.
The last and only time the Trump White House signed off on denials of clemency was in April 2018. Offenders routinely refile requests but cannot do so until previous requests have been denied.
In an interview days before the Stone announcement, Nicole Navas, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the office has continued to process applications during the pandemic. The department has repeatedly declined to say how many petitions are backlogged at the White House.
Most Republicans were quiet about the commutation, but Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) called it a “mistake,” and Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), the lone Senate Republican to vote to convict Trump during his impeachment trial, condemned the move.
“Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president,” Romney wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
In virtually every respect, Trump’s commutation of Stone’s sentence violates standards set forth by the Justice Department for ordinary people seeking the same relief.
According to those guidelines, which deem commutation an “extraordinary remedy,” requests are generally not accepted until convicts have begun serving their sentence. Stone has served none of his sentence.
Commutation requests also are generally accepted only from people no longer appealing their convictions. Stone told reporters this past week that he preferred a commutation to a pardon because it would let him continue to try to have his conviction overturned in court. In announcing the commutation, the White House endorsed Stone’s appeal, indicating that Trump did not wish to “interfere” with Stone’s opportunity to “vindicate himself before the courts.”
Of the grounds the Justice Department lays out as “appropriate” for commutation consideration, it is not clear that any apply to Stone.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced him to 40 months only after weighing the need to avoid an unduly severe sentence, one consideration in the guidelines. She also rejected that Stone’s age — he is 67 — or his health justified a lesser sentence, factors also mentioned in the guidelines. During his February sentencing hearing, Jackson indicated that his defense team had submitted some confidential materials related to his health, but she noted that since his conviction, he had sought and received permission to crisscross the country for paid public appearances.
Stone had also sought to delay the start of his sentence because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Justice Department has been releasing some inmates to home confinement, particularly those who are older, because of the virus. However, Jackson last month refused to delay the start of Stone’s sentence until September, as he had requested, arguing that the facility where he has been ordered to serve has not been the site of a major outbreak.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program at New York University Law School, noted Saturday on Twitter that the White House statement said Stone “would be put at serious medical risk in prison.” She tweeted: “That concern doesn’t seem to apply to the health of so many others locked in federal prison during the #COVID19 pandemic.”
The Justice Department guidelines also contemplate commutation for felons who have rendered “meritorious service” to the government, generally for cooperating with investigations but not receiving adequate consideration of that assistance at sentencing. In Stone’s case, his conviction stemmed from an unwillingness to assist Congress’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and he has worn his similar refusal to cooperate with prosecutors as a badge of honor.
President Barack Obama issued a record number of commutations but left Trump with a backlog of about 11,300 petitions. More than 9,100 petitions for clemency have been filed since Trump’s election, of which about 1,500 arrived after the campaign ad featuring Johnson appeared, according to the Justice Department’s website.
Johnson said Saturday that she remains optimistic that Trump will issue more grants of clemency.
Stone “is not one that I have personally advocated for, but that there’s movement on clemency makes me hopeful that there will be more,” Johnson said. “The people I am advocating for have spent years in prison and have proven that they rehabilitated themselves.”
They include a number of women and people of color serving long sentences for drug crimes. Two of the women, LaShonda Hall and Lenora Logan, are inmates with whom Johnson served time. Another is one of Johnson’s co-defendants, Curtis McDonald, who is 70 and was quarantined with covid-19 when they spoke last month. Johnson also is pushing for the release of Chris Young, a 32-year-old serving a life sentence for drug crimes who also has been talked up by Kardashian West.
In an email from his prison in eastern Texas, Young said he would like the president to know, “Not only could I be the best example for those who are coming from dire circumstances like I came from, but I could be the best example for those who wonder if they should they have compassion & sympathy for those in situations like me.”
Devlin Barrett, Robert Costa and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.