After Trump Tweet, DOJ Softens Sentencing Recommendation For POTUS Ally Hours after the Justice Department intervened to seek a shorter sentence for Roger Stone, the four federal prosecutors who secured his conviction withdrew from the case.

Stone was convicted in November on charges of lying to Congress, obstructing its investigation and witness tampering. Judge Amy Berman Jackson has the ultimate authority to hand down the sentence in his case.

This episode: congressional correspondent Susan Davis, Justice Department correspondent Ryan Lucas, and White House correspondent Tamara Keith.

More from the NPR Politics Team:
Scott Detrow on Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast, talking about where leading Democratic presidential contenders stand on climate policy.

Danielle Kurtzleben on NPR's Throughline, discussing the history of women running for president of the United States.

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After Trump Tweet, DOJ Softens Sentencing Recommendation For POTUS Ally

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After Trump Tweet, DOJ Softens Sentencing Recommendation For POTUS Ally

After Trump Tweet, DOJ Softens Sentencing Recommendation For POTUS Ally

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/805357154/805431015" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

Hey there. Real quick, before we start the show - California, we are coming your way for a live show on February 19. We are super excited to finally get to come to Southern California. We will be in Thousand Oaks with KCLU talking about the 2020 race and more. To get your tickets head over to nprpresents.org. OK, here's the show.

MATT: Hi, this is Matt (ph) from Ann Arbor, Mich. I'm sitting in front of my laptop about to make the last payment of my student loan debt, which I have been carrying on my shoulders for the last 15 years. And that ends now. I'll click submit. It says that it may take two to three days for the payment to post to my account, and by that time, this podcast will have already been recorded at the time of...

DAVIS: 2:38 p.m. on Wednesday, February 12.

MATT: Things may have changed by the time you listen to it, but I will still - and for the rest of my life - be free of student loan debt.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DAVIS: Congratulations to Matt.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Yeah, congrats.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: That's a good deal.

DAVIS: And I share in Matt's congratulations because I, too, recently paid off my college debt just last week.

LUCAS: No small thing. Congratulations as well to you.

DAVIS: Thank you very much. I'll take it. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

LUCAS: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

DAVIS: Last Wednesday, President Donald Trump was acquitted on two articles of impeachment. And 48 hours later, he began what I think is fair to call a campaign of retribution against people he has perceived as his enemies along the way.

KEITH: It was a purge.

DAVIS: It was a purge (laughter). That's a good way to put it. I mean, I think it started most personally with his attacks against Utah senator Mitt Romney, which I don't think he's going to relent on anytime soon.

KEITH: No.

LUCAS: The one Republican senator who voted to convict him...

DAVIS: Right.

LUCAS: ...In the Senate impeachment trial.

KEITH: Well, and at this campaign rally I attended on Monday, he mentions Romney's name, and the room goes wild. So expect those attacks to continue. But also, the White House forced out of the National Security Council Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. He was a key impeachment witness. They also pushed out his twin brother. Also, the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, was recalled. And now President Trump is suggesting that the military should discipline Vindman or at least saying, you know, the military should look into him.

DAVIS: And Vindman, worth reminding, he's a Purple Heart recipient. And while he was a key impeachment witness and no part in the process is he accused of anything wrong - if anything he reported his concerns up the chain of command; he followed all rules and procedures - so being pushed out of the job certainly does look like it was retribution, especially because the president has been so critical of him in this process.

KEITH: Very vocally critical of him, including earlier this week in the Oval Office.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: When you say that the military can deal with Vindman any way that they want...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Yeah, well, that's up to them. He's...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you suggesting...

TRUMP: He is now - he is over with the military.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you think he needs to face disciplinary...

TRUMP: That's going to be up to the military. We'll have to see. But if you look at what happened, I mean, they're going to certainly, I would imagine, take a look at that. But no, I think what he did was - just reported a false call.

LUCAS: And let's remember - Vindman testified under subpoena before the House impeachment inquiry. And in that testimony, he also gave a very - he closed his opening statement with a very kind of personal touch, telling his father not to worry, he's doing the right thing, and this is the United States; nothing bad will happen to him.

KEITH: Now the White House and the president's allies will say, hey, the president can have whoever he wants working in his White House, that ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president and he can choose to get rid of Sondland whenever he wants and that Vindman and his twin brother are both not out of a job; they're back in the Defense Department.

DAVIS: Let's take a quick break, and when we come back, we'll talk more about the Roger Stone case.

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DAVIS: And we're back. And now yesterday, the president waded in in the case of Roger Stone, a longtime friend and associate, a well-known political trickster dating back to the Nixon era, who's been convicted on charges of obstruction, false statements and witness tampering. The president can weigh in on any number of things on Twitter; he does that all the time. But then DOJ took action in that regard.

LUCAS: This was a weird, cascading crisis yesterday that - at the beginning of the day, there was no inkling that this would actually head down the path that it ultimately did. And so what happened, yes, on Monday evening, federal prosecutors in Stone's case made the sentencing recommendation, as they do in every case, and they recommended the guidelines range of seven to nine years. Trump tweeted his displeasure about that very early Tuesday morning.

And then around midday, it emerged out of the Justice Department that a senior Justice Department official told reporters that the Justice Department thought that this was an excessive recommendation, that this was different from what they had been briefed on originally and that they would clarify its position. And so later in the day, they filed a different sentencing recommendation, and in this new filing, they basically said, look - Stone did some bad things. He should spend some time in prison. We're not going to suggest how much time that should be, but it should be far less than the seven- to nine-year recommendation that was in the original filing.

DAVIS: But this prompted prosecutors directly involved in the case, this cascading series of resignations.

LUCAS: It did. That's right. The four prosecutors on Stone's case, the ones who prosecuted the case at trial, all submitted papers to the court to withdraw from the case. One of them went so far as actually resigning from the Justice Department entirely. And I think what that does is underline how unusual it is for the Justice Department to overrule the prosecutors in a case when it comes to a sentencing recommendation. I spoke to several former prosecutors yesterday who all said this is essentially unheard of. It is highly, highly unusual for what's known as Main Justice, the Justice Department headquarters here in Washington D.C., to weigh in on a case like this.

Basically, prosecutors - the line prosecutors on a case are the ones who know the case best. They're the ones who make the recommendation on what sentencing should be. There's no reason for Justice Department higher-ups to say, you know what? Actually, we think, in this case that I have not handled, this is what the recommendation should be. That's why this is so unusual. And what this has done is really emphasized yet again questions that Democrats and former Justice Department officials have about the independence of this Justice Department and the Trump administration.

KEITH: And to put a finer point on it, President Trump then tweeted again, quote, "congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought. Evidence now clearly shows that the Mueller scam was improperly brought and tainted. Even Bob Mueller lied to Congress," - exclamation point. I have no idea what he was talking about there with the Mueller part. But more to the point, like, the president of the United States clearly has no concern about the perception of political interference.

DAVIS: The president has not been shy about the fact that he believes that the Justice Department should more aggressively work on the issues that he personally thinks are important. There's no sort of semblance of distance between the president and the DOJ. If anything, he seems to have wanted to pull the institution closer under his control.

KEITH: One other element here, Ryan, that I think is sort of interesting is that both the Justice Department and the White House and even the president himself have been very clear that the president didn't talk to the attorney general about this. He tweeted about it. He broadcast his desires. But they, up and down, are claiming that there was no conversation. However, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told us today out on the driveway of the White House that if there had been a conversation, that wouldn't have been a problem, either.

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HOGAN GIDLEY: Well, he has the right to have a conversation with the attorney general. He did not. Let's not forget, it was Barack Obama who made his views very clearly known about the Eric Garner case. It was George H.W. Bush who talked about the acquittal in the Rodney King case. So this is not an unprecedented situation. The fact is, though, in this one, the president didn't have a conversation with the attorney general at all. But he has the right to do it.

KEITH: Though the precedent they're citing, there's a very big difference, and the difference is that President Trump and Roger Stone have a relationship. Roger Stone was convicted of lying to Congress and intimidating a witness to protect President Trump.

LUCAS: The Justice Department has said that the decision to revise that original sentencing recommendation, that decision was made, they say, on Monday night, which would have been before President Trump ever tweeted about it. Ultimately, the decision is in Judge Amy Berman Jackson's hands.

DAVIS: And when does that decision come down?

LUCAS: Stone is going to be sentenced on February 20 - so next Thursday.

DAVIS: Ryan, you say that people you've talked to say it's unprecedented for the White House to weigh in on a case like this. And I would put this question to both of you - I mean, is there a sense that this is setting a new precedent now for this president who seems pretty emboldened in his actions in this moment?

LUCAS: Put it this way - if Trump had not tweeted at all and Barr had done this, this would have still raised significant questions about politicization of the DOJ...

DAVIS: Yeah.

LUCAS: ...Because the senior leadership at the Justice Department doesn't overrule line prosecutors when making sentencing recommendations in cases. That just doesn't happen. That is unheard of. That's why this is a problem. The president's side is one thing, and that takes you to the top guy in the land. But this, fundamentally, is something that the Justice Department did. It's the steps by the senior leadership of the Justice Department that have created this problem.

DAVIS: How much concern is there inside Main Justice that this could be a new normal?

LUCAS: It is a very large organization. There are tens of thousands of people who work for the Justice Department. Certainly, the question of the political independence of the Justice Department from the politics of this country is a long-standing concern - always has been, always will be - because of how important the rule of law is in this country. And these are people who have, by and large, dedicated their careers to preserving the rule of law and pursuing justice.

DAVIS: But, Tam, the president right now just seems so emboldened. If you just look at this rapid series of actions, it doesn't seem like he's going to slow down anytime soon.

KEITH: I mean, my question would be - when has he ever slowed down?

DAVIS: (Laughter) That's true.

KEITH: Like, I mean, yes, there was a...

DAVIS: But there's clearly been a shift.

KEITH: There was a 24-day day period where he didn't go out to the South Lawn and just hold court during the Senate trial, and he was, like, clearly being more cautious. And that is over, and he is going after his enemies, and his White House says he's going to go after his enemies or that they should face consequences. Like, that's all there.

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, I would say from my corner of the universe on Capitol Hill, it's really interesting, too, because the acquittal had the sense of giving the president a feeling of vindication and, I think, even more power because Republicans on Capitol Hill made clear that they're not very interested in reining in the president. And even when he's taken these actions in recent days that continues to make them uncomfortable, they're even really hesitant to criticize them.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday was asked about the decisions that - the DOJ's decisions and he just said, I don't have an opinion on that. And Republicans are not engaging on this behavior, and I think that just serves - sends a message to the White House that he's not going to find a lot of pushback from within his own party if he continues to make these kind of decisions.

All right, we're going to leave it there for today. But if you're looking for more coverage, some of our friends on the NPR POLITICS team have been playing with other podcasts, and you can hear them there. Danielle Kurtzleben is on NPR's Throughline podcast this week. She's talking about the history of women running for president. And Scott Detrow was on a recent episode of Short Wave talking about the climate policies of some of the top 2020 contenders. You can find links to those in the show notes.

I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

LUCAS: And I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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