The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DOJ intervenes in Russia probe — again — and this one looks awfully suspicious

Four prosecutors have quit after the Justice Department decided to reduce their recommended sentence for Roger Stone — shortly after Trump tweeted that it was “unfair.” Even if Trump had not tweeted, this would look awful.

Attorney General William P. Barr departs after President Trump delivered remarks at the White House Summit on Human Trafficking in January. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On Tuesday, we saw the latest in a string of suspiciously pro-Trump maneuvers on the Russia investigation from Attorney General William P. Barr’s Justice Department — with this one coming on the final prosecution emanating from it.

The Justice Department has now announced that it will reduce its sentence recommendation for longtime Trump ally Roger Stone. That announcement comes just hours after Trump tweeted his objection to the proposed sentence, which was seven to nine years in prison. And it soon led to all four prosecutors withdrawing from the case.

“This is a horrible and very unfair situation,” Trump wrote. “The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”

It bears emphasizing up top that the proximity to Trump’s tweet may be pure happenstance. As The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett report, a senior Justice Department official said the decision to reduce the sentence recommendation was made before Trump weighed in. In addition, the recommended sentence for Stone was on the harsh side, with prosecutors citing a number of aggravating factors.

But it was also within the guidelines, which makes the reversal from DOJ all the more unusual — and suspicious. And just hours after the announcement Tuesday, all four career prosecutors on the case moved to withdraw from the case. Aaron Zelinsky abruptly withdrew from the case and resigned as a special assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, while keeping his other job in the Justice Department. Adam Jed and Michael Marando sought to withdraw from the case. And a fourth prosecutor, Jonathan Kravis, resigned from the government entirely.

In other words, it sure looks bad.

And here’s the thing: That would be true even if Trump had not commented. Trump denied privately applying pressure Tuesday afternoon. But even if that’s true and Trump’s tweet had no impact, what we would still have is prosecutors recommending a sentence for a Trump ally and then having higher-ups in Trump’s Justice Department overrule them.

Four career prosecutors withdrew from the case against Roger Stone on Feb. 11 after the Justice Department signaled a lower sentencing recommendation for him. (Video: Reuters)

The senior Justice Department official described a situation in which the prosecutors had blindsided or failed to accurately inform their superiors of their intentions. They said DOJ “was shocked to see the sentencing recommendation in the Roger Stone case last night.”

“That recommendation is not what had been briefed to the department,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive case.

That is certainly possible, but you wonder how it could have happened with such a high-profile prosecution, given the weighty political matters involved. The Justice Department needs to make it clear that it is not giving any special treatment to an ally of the president. How it and its prosecutors could have so bungled this sentencing recommendation is difficult to countenance.

That said, it is the latest in a long line of curiosities from Barr’s DOJ related to the Russia probe and, more recently, the Ukraine scandal. There were the times:

  • Barr offered a misleading summary of Mueller’s report.
  • He decided to clear Trump of obstruction of justice, even though Mueller had determined he could not.
  • He adopted Trump’s talking points on “no collusion” and “spying.”
  • He has traveled overseas to assist in the probe examining the origins of the Russia probe — a key initiative long pushed for by Trump.
  • He issued an extraordinary statement disagreeing with an inspector general who said the Russia investigation was adequately predicated.
  • The Justice Department opted not to investigate Trump for a campaign finance violation on Ukraine despite a prohibition on seeking foreign assistance in an election.

However legitimate the latest episode is, that certainly points to the direction in which Barr has erred. Repeatedly, on matters related to the Russia and Ukraine, his Justice Department has done things that suggest that, even if Trump is not explicitly leaning on him, he has taken a Trump-friendly stance on the whole thing — and that he has gone out of his way in doing so.

That would be potentially problematic even if this did not involve Trump or his allies personally, given that prosecutions are supposed to be handled independently and free of political influence. The fact that it does involve them adds even more pressure to make sure it is on the up-and-up — and also looks that way to the outside.

Even if Trump did not tweet what he did Tuesday morning, this whole thing would still fail that test.

Roger Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison on Feb. 20, after being convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)