Trump Spares Roger Stone Prison : The NPR Politics Podcast President Trump has commuted the prison sentence of Roger Stone. Stone was convicted by a jury of lying to Congress about his efforts to contact WikiLeaks during Russia's interference in the 2016 election. The move has prompted outcry from Democrats, Mitt Romney, and Robert Mueller.

This episode: campaign correspondent Asma Khalid, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, and justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.

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Trump Uses His Office To Help A Friend: Roger Stone's Sentence Commuted

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Trump Uses His Office To Help A Friend: Roger Stone's Sentence Commuted

Trump Uses His Office To Help A Friend: Roger Stone's Sentence Commuted

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HEATHER: Hi. This is Heather (ph) in Albany, N.Y., and I'm doing my favorite social distancing activity - taking a nice ride in the woods with my horse Fiona. So far, we've seen two turkeys, four deer and absolutely no other people. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

2:09 p.m. on Monday, July 13.

HEATHER: So things may have changed by the time you hear it. All right. Here's the show.

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

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: I'd love to go for a horseback ride.

KHALID: I know. That sounds nice right about now.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: No kidding. You're telling me.

ORDOÑEZ: But in this heat - I mean, whoa.

KHALID: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

I'm Asma Khalid. I'm covering the presidential campaign.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

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

KHALID: On Friday night President Trump commuted the prison sentence for his longtime friend Roger Stone. Stone, as you all probably remember, is a veteran GOP operative who was convicted of lying to Congress. And, Ryan, if I'm calling this correctly, his conviction had to do with lying about conversations that he had around WikiLeaks. Is that right?

LUCAS: Yes. The case against Stone was brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team. It was actually the last case brought by Mueller's team as part of the Russia investigation. And Stone was charged with and convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction. And, yes, all of those charges relate to efforts that Stone made during the 2016 presidential campaign to get in touch with WikiLeaks to find out what the group intended to do with all those hacked Democratic emails that we subsequently learned were hacked by the Russian intelligence services.

KHALID: Yeah.

LUCAS: The charges also relate to Stone's efforts essentially to hide those efforts, to cover up those efforts, to keep them hidden from the public so that people didn't know about what he was trying to do.

KHALID: And, Ryan, you covered his trial. I remember there was lots of drama. But remind us...

LUCAS: (Laughter).

KHALID: Where did things land? What was his sentence?

LUCAS: He was convicted, as I said, by a jury. It's important to note that - convicted by a jury in November on all seven counts that were brought against him as part of this case. The presiding judge in the case, Amy Berman Jackson, ultimately sentenced Stone to three years and four months in prison as well as two years of probation. Stone was supposed to report to prison on Tuesday - so actually tomorrow. And what he ended up doing was increasing kind of these pushes to try to get the president to act. And ultimately, four days before Stone was to report to prison, the president, as we know, commuted his sentence.

KHALID: So, Franco, how has President Trump justified this decision to commute his friend's sentence? I mean, what is his explanation? And I think we should be clear that commuting is different than pardoning in terms of, you know, an admission, I guess, of guilt here. But still, how has he justified this decision?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, you're right. This is not absolving Roger Stone of the crime. It's kind of lessening his punishment. President Trump responded on Saturday and said Roger Stone was treated horribly during the Russia investigation. This is what he said after going to the golf course.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Roger Stone was brought into this witch hunt, this whole political witch hunt, and the Mueller scam. It's a scam because it's been proven false. And he was treated very unfairly just like Gen. Flynn is treated unfairly, just like Papadopoulos was treated unfairly. They've all been treated unfairly. And what I did - I will tell you this. People are extremely happy because in this country, they want justice.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany today reiterated much of that during her press conference at the White House. She pushed back on accusations that this was politically motivated. And she kind of tried to point the finger at some other past presidents, citing offerings of clemency by, for example, President Obama, Bill Clinton of, for example, financier Marc Rich, which was also extremely controversial. But what I think stands out here regarding Roger Stone is that the conviction came from an investigation of the president's conduct himself. And, you know, Roger Stone even hinted in advance that he thought he would be rewarded for his loyalty of not flipping on the president. So that's really caught a lot of people's attention on both sides of the aisle.

LUCAS: There are a couple things that I want to mention here about kind of the White House's justification or reasoning for commuting Stone's sentence. And one is this statement that the White House put out on Friday evening. It's important also note that this sentence was commuted - on Friday after 6 p.m. is when we learned about it. And the White House statement was on fire. It was - basically, all of the allegations and complaints that the president has made for the past several years about the Russia investigation were included in this statement announcing the commutation of Stone's sentence. It did not read like a sort of standard commutation of, we're going to do X, Y, Z. It was, Roger Stone was the victim of a hoax, an investigation that never should have happened. There were problems with the jury. He is the victim here.

Now, there has been pushback on all of that. And I will say, as someone who covered Stone's trial and the case against him from the beginning, these allegations of there being some sort of malfeasance on the part of the jury - the judge in this case investigated that. Stone brought that up during the course of his case in court. The judge examined it and rejected it. So that has been addressed and rejected by a court of law.

KHALID: And, Ryan, has Stone himself publicly come out and said anything about this whole decision?

LUCAS: Well, Stone spoke briefly on Friday after it was announced, and he had a little bit to say. Here's a bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROGER STONE: I was worried about my safety there. I was worried about my health. So the president has saved my life. And he's given me the opportunity to fight for vindication, to fight for my exoneration.

KHALID: Ryan, can you explain what he's talking about when he says he's, you know, concerned for his life? What was that about?

LUCAS: Stone had been trying to push back his report date to federal prison, and in part, that's because, you know, there has been an outbreak of COVID-19 in the nation's federal prisons. And there are certainly health concerns for anyone of Stone's age. He's 67, claims to have some underlying health conditions. So that may be a reference to concerns about what COVID would do to him if he had to indeed serve time in prison.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll have more on the reaction to this, including an op-ed from the former Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.

And we're back. So, you know, I cover the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, and his campaign weighed in on all of this Friday night. They said that President Trump had abused his power. And by doing this on a Friday night, he was hoping, they say, to avoid scrutiny. And this whole situation, in their view, in essence could only be resolved through the ballot box in November. And so it feels, you know, to some degree that this is becoming a referendum on the president with stakes that they see that can only be resolved in the November election. And, Franco, is that in sync with what you've heard from other people? And have we seen the political fallout largely go back to traditional partisan lines that we always see?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, for the most part, yes. I mean, not surprisingly, Democrats have responded like Biden did. I mean, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is calling this staggering corruption. Rep. Adam Schiff, who led the House impeachment of President Trump, you know, said the decision was among Trump's most offensive of the rule of law and principles of justice. He was on Here And Now today talking about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ADAM SCHIFF: It's a real body blow to the rule of law in this country that, under this presidency, there are two standards of justice. There's one for friends and cronies and accomplices of the president, and then there's one for everybody else. If you're willing to lie for the president, if you're willing to intimidate witnesses and obstruct and cover up for the president, then essentially, you get out of jail free. And that's an appalling degradation of the democracy in this country.

ORDOÑEZ: And look; it's not just Democrats. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney called this historic and unprecedented corruption. And Sen. Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania also objected to this, calling it a mistake and saying if anything was going to be done, it should've been resolved through the appeals process. So it's been, you know, significant on both sides. I would like to note, though, among Trump supporters, though, he has had plenty of defenders. Most of leadership has been quiet on this, but Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who's been behind Trump on so many times, said that it was justified.

LUCAS: There's a question that I have for Asma since you cover the campaign. I mean, sitting in Washington and talking to folks in the legal community, a lot of people's views on the Russia investigation and what the president has done and continues to do is pretty firmly entrenched at this point. Do you think that this decision - the decision to commute Roger Stone's sentence - is something that voters are paying attention to or care about?

KHALID: I think that's an excellent question. I mean, all I can point to is when there have been other similar instances, you know, of abuse of power concerns - right? - over the last, let's say, year and a half at this point while the campaign's been going on. I have voiced those questions to voters. And I would say it's not something that you hear extensively about and in part because right now people are really suffering from, you know, just a whole bunch of other issues, whether that's concerns about their kids going to school, whether that's, honestly, public health concerns around COVID. And so I will say it is not something that I substantively hear a lot about from people or have been hearing a lot about just given the current environment that we're in.

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, the times that we are in now - I mean, things are so partisan right now in America that the examples that we're seeing are largely along partisan lines. And, you know, Mitt Romney has obviously come out against President Trump in the past, including on impeachment.

LUCAS: He was the only Republican to vote in favor of hearing evidence during the impeachment trial.

KHALID: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: Right. So these views are, you know, largely baked in. So you got to wonder how much of a dent it'll make.

KHALID: So, you know, before the break I had mentioned that we've heard some criticism to the president's decision from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He's the person who built this case against Roger Stone, and he had this op-ed in The Washington Post over the weekend. And, Franco, I guess what felt unusual to me about the op-ed was frankly just the existence of this op-ed because I think Mueller is widely known for his silence on all of this, even after he left the job in 2019.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, it was definitely significant that he came out and spoke and defended his investigation and reiterated very in strong language that Roger Stone is still a convicted felon. You know, that said, I have spoken with some Democrats about this who are, you know, I would say, you know, saying - maybe a little late to the party, saying - feeling like he should have come out stronger during the impeachment hearings, could have made a greater difference.

KHALID: Ryan, does it feel to you that Mueller's attitude in this op-ed is just - it's more forceful or it's different than what we've heard from him in the past?

LUCAS: I don't know if it's that different from what we've heard from him in the past. But it does appear to be certainly a very direct response to the announcement from the White House and all of the attacks that we've heard against the prosecution of Stone and just the Mueller investigation kind of writ large. But in this op-ed, he is very forceful in his defense of the investigation, saying that it was proper. There was a reason that they were given the task of looking into Russia's interference in the campaign in 2016 and whether there were ties between the Trump camp and Russian intelligence.

And he very much defends, you know, the prosecution of Stone himself, saying that, you know, Stone was in touch with known Russian intelligence agents. Stone claimed to have advanced knowledge of what WikiLeaks intended to do with those hacked Democratic emails, which we later learned, of course, were hacked by the Russian intelligence services. So there were reasons - there were well-founded reasons to look at Stone. And every decision in the case against Stone, Mueller says in this op-ed, was based on facts and the law regarding this specific case.

ORDOÑEZ: I just want to take an extra second to say that this story kind of raises one of the biggest criticisms - that this is kind of a larger pattern of President Trump using his office to pursue his own personal goals, political goals, whether that's commanding loyalty from administration officials to asking foreign leaders for help in the 2020 election to this - Roger Stone - to Michael Flynn. I mean, there - it kind of goes on and on and on, and we've seen this over and over again. And there's a lot of questions about whether there's a pattern here and whether it will or should have an impact on the election.

KHALID: All right. Let's leave it there for today. Also, if you haven't heard, we've launched a workout playlist on Spotify featuring our favorite workout songs that'll be updated daily with the latest episode of this podcast. We'll add new songs regularly to keep you motivated. You can find the link in the description of this episode.

I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

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

KHALID: 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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