This has been updated with Attorney General Barr’s comments

The contours of this new controversy are relatively simple to grasp: Did President Trump pressure the Justice Department, an independent agency, to go easy on punishing a friend who was ensnared in the Russia investigation? And did the Justice Department act to appease Trump?

Trump and the Justice Department both deny it. But the department’s decision to reduce its recommended sentence for Roger Stone, a longtime Trump friend, seems suspicious. Let’s look at what happened, step by step, and explore how this could be connected to Trump’s impeachment and his reelection bid.

We’ll start in November. Stone is found guilty of lying to Congress and witness tampering related to his efforts to get hacked Democratic campaign emails from WikiLeaks (which the Robert S. Mueller III investigation of Russian interference traced back to the Russians).

Stone has been a fringe character in Republican politics for decades, but he was brought into the spotlight during Trump’s campaign. He was a senior adviser to the campaign, and other senior campaign officials, such as Stephen K. Bannon, testified at his trial that they considered Stone a conduit to WikiLeaks.

Stone was one of the last people in Trump’s orbit to be charged in the Mueller investigation. Prosecutors viewed Stone as a critical element of their narrative that the Trump campaign was at least open to receiving help from Russia, even if investigators found no concerted effort to work with the foreign government to win.

The government’s sentencing recommendation for Stone came out Monday: Federal prosecutors had a fierce debate about how to punish him for his crimes, reported The Washington Post’s Spencer S. Hsu, Ann E. Marimow and Devlin Barrett:

Front-line prosecutors, some previously with Mueller’s team, argued for a sentence on the higher end for Stone than some of their supervisors were comfortable with, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

But they ultimately decided to go with something that would, in the words of one prosecutor, “promote respect for the law.” So on Monday, they recommended that a judge sentence him on the heavier end of what’s permissible for the crimes: seven to nine years.

The ultimate sentence will be up to the federal judge, who will also hear from Stone’s defense attorneys about why she should be lenient.

The tweet: Early Tuesday, Trump tweeted that the department’s recommendation to a federal judge to put his friend in prison for that long was “very unfair.” More ominously, he offered what could easily be interpreted as a command or a call to action: “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”

Even if that wasn’t a directive to the Justice Department’s senior officials to rethink the sentence, it was the type of language that other presidents have taken pains to avoid, lest they be viewed as yanking at the independence of the nation’s top law enforcement agency.

The reversal: Shortly after that tweet, other more senior department officials said they would be reducing Stone’s sentence recommendation. They indicated that they felt caught off guard by the decision to go with the higher end of punishment. “The department finds the recommendation extreme and excessive and disproportionate to Stone’s offenses,” one told The Post.

They said they didn’t talk to the White House about this. But given how explicit Trump’s tweet was, if they wanted to oblige the president, they didn’t have to talk to him.

The backlash: By the end of Tuesday, all four prosecutors working on the Stone case had withdrawn their names from it. One even outright quit the department. It seems that this was symptomatic of a larger issue for them.

“Some career Justice Department employees,” The Post’s Matt Zapotosky, Barrett, Marimow and Hsu reported, “say [this] is a continuing pattern of the historically independent law enforcement institution being bent to Trump’s political will.“

Despite the upheaval at the DOJ, Trump kept at it: He has since attacked the judge who will be doing the sentencing and on Thursday accused the jury forewoman in Stone’s case of being biased. At this point, it’s fair to say he’s trying to call into question not just Stone’s sentencing but the entire trial that convicted his friend.

Since Roger Stone was arrested in early 2019, President Trump has not ruled out a pardon for his former political adviser. (The Washington Post)

How high up does the intervention into Stone’s sentencing go? Trump congratulated Barr for helping out his friend. In an ABC News interview Thursday, Attorney General William P. Barr took responsibility for reducing the sentence. But he said he he had decided to reduce the sentence before the tweet.

Barr has sided with Trump on a number of controversial, high-profile issues, such as how to describe the findings in the Mueller report and the sentencing of another person in Trump’s orbit, former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

But in that ABC interview, Barr did something rare: He criticized the president for getting involved: “To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about people in the department, about our men and women here, about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases make it impossible for me to do my job and to ensure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we are doing our work with integrity,” he said.

How this may be connected to impeachment: Specifically, how is this connected to Trump’s acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate? A Trump acquitted is a Trump emboldened, to the point of feeling untouchable, The Post’s Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Josh Dawsey report. In a week’s span after being acquitted, Trump has made overt efforts to influence his friend’s prison time and equally overt efforts to punish those who testified against him in impeachment. Days after he was acquitted, Trump dismissed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a national security aide, from the White House and recalled European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland.

How this may be connected to 2020: Democrats are seizing on the suspect appearance of all this to argue that Trump is corrupt, hoping that resonates. The top Senate Democrat, Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), called Wednesday for the Justice Department’s internal watchdog to investigate what happened.

“The president ran against the swamp in Washington,” Schumer said, “a place where the game is rigged by the powerful to benefit them personally. I ask my fellow Americans: What is more swampy, what is more fetid, what is more stinking, than the most powerful person in our country literally changing the rules to benefit a crony guilty of breaking the law?”

He also made a connection between Trump’s actions and Senate Republicans who acquitted Trump. It’s undeniable that Trump feels like he can be more overt in his efforts to influence government to his favor after Republicans voted to acquit him. So that raises another important question arising from this past week: Are vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection this November more vulnerable because they voted to acquit a president who feels vindicated and is out for revenge?

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