By midday, that draft column was in the trash. It didn’t take long for the Justice Department to demonstrate that, on the contrary, things are even worse than many have feared.
Political operative and Trump ally Roger Stone was convicted in November on seven felony counts of obstruction of justice, lying to Congress and witness tampering. A jury found that he repeatedly lied to a congressional committee about his role as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks concerning stolen Democratic emails and that he threatened another witness, Randy Credico.
Federal sentencing guidelines, as calculated by the U.S. probation office, call for a sentence of about seven to nine years in prison. That’s a hefty penalty for this type of crime, but it was boosted by Stone’s threats to Credico and by the duration and breadth of Stone’s misconduct. In a memorandum filed on Monday, federal prosecutors strongly condemned Stone’s actions and recommended a sentence in line with the guidelines.
Then, on Tuesday, a senior Justice Department official said the department’s leadership believed the recommended sentence was “extreme, excessive, and grossly disproportionate.” Later that day, Shea filed a memorandum urging a lower sentence and arguing that the sentence his prosecutors had endorsed a day earlier — in a pleading bearing his name — would be “excessive and unwarranted.” All four of the Stone prosecutors promptly withdrew from the case in protest.
So what changed in the less than 24 hours since the initial sentencing memorandum was filed? Nothing — except President Trump tweeting that he thought Stone’s situation was “horrible and very unfair.”
Anyone who hasn’t been a prosecutor may not fully appreciate what a wildly inappropriate and unprecedented punch to the gut this was. Those lawyers had appeared before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson for more than a year on this case. When they filed papers or stood up in court, they were understood to be speaking for the Justice Department. This move cut their legs out from under them and destroyed their credibility. Withdrawing was their only honorable option, and they should be commended for exercising it.
Of course, supervisors have the right to review subordinates’ work and to correct perceived errors. But the Justice Department’s pearl-clutching — suggesting that the sentencing recommendation was so out of bounds it required this extraordinary public rebuke of the prosecutors — is not remotely credible. The prosecutors’ position was not outrageous; they simply endorsed the sentence recommended by the probation office. That’s standard operating procedure. One thing is clear: If Stone were not a Trump crony, no one at the Justice Department would have batted an eye about his proposed sentence.
It has long been evident that Trump does not appreciate the norms that historically have shielded criminal prosecutions from political influence. But for the first years of his presidency, at least there were some guardrails. When Trump tried to get then-White House Counsel Donald McGahn to fire Mueller, McGahn refused and was ready to resign in protest. Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, properly recused himself from the Russia investigation and then refused Trump’s entreaties to unrecuse so he could end the investigation.
But now, with Barr at the helm, it appears there is no one at the Justice Department to stand in Trump’s way. On Twitter on Wednesday, the president congratulated Barr for “taking charge” of the Stone case, which he claimed was “totally out of control.” Trump plainly believes he can do whatever he wants as president, including meddling in criminal prosecutions of his associates. The politicization of the Justice Department appears complete. Trump tweets, and the DOJ jumps.
The norms concerning the Justice Department’s independence have been built up over generations. They are fundamental to the rule of law and have distinguished the United States from authoritarian regimes whose despots use criminal prosecution as a political weapon. Trump has repeatedly tested those norms, but this blatant political interference in the Stone sentencing represents a new low. That’s why so many former Justice officials are sounding the alarm.
One day, Trump will leave office. But the damage he has done to the Justice Department will endure — and may be irreparable. For those of us who cherish the department and the ideals for which it stands, this is heartbreaking. For the country, it’s extremely dangerous.