All four prosecutors have quit the case involving veteran Republican operative and long-time Trump adviser and friend Roger Stone.
This followed pressure from President Donald Trump and the U.S. Justice Department, seeking a shorter prison term for the convicted Stone.
The four prosecutors who won Stone’s conviction – Aaron Zelinsky, Adam Jed, Michael Marando and Jonathan Kravis – in court filing withdrew from the case. Kravis told the court that he was also quitting his job as a federal prosecutor.
Senior department officials – hours after Trump complained on Twitter that Stone was being treated unfairly – overrode the sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years made on Monday by the federal prosecutors who secured Stone’s conviction. Stone was found guilty in November on seven counts of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering.
In a new court filing, a Justice Department official who had not previously worked on the case called that recommendation “excessive and unwarranted” and said the department would not make a formal sentencing recommendation.
Democrats blasted the department’s shift in the high-profile case involving Stone, whose friendship with Trump dates back decades. Stone’s trial arose from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that detailed extensive Russian interference in the 2016 election to benefit Trump’s candidacy.
Trump told reporters he thought the initial recommendation was “ridiculous” but said he did not speak to the Justice Department about it.
“I’d be able to do it if I wanted. I have the absolute right to do it. I stay out of things,” Trump said.
Trump also withdrew the nomination of Jessie Liu, a former U.S. attorney in Washington whose office prosecuted Stone, for the post of Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes, a source familiar with the matter said.
A senior Justice Department official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity, called the timing of Trump’s tweet an “inconvenient coincidence.” The official said he did not know why the four prosecutors withdrew, but said it appeared to be in protest. The official said it was “surprising that that would be the line in the sand.”
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson is due to sentence Stone on Feb. 20.
In a tweet late on Tuesday, Trump criticized Jackson’s handling of another criminal case involving his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was convicted in 2018 on tax fraud, bank fraud and other charges.
Legal experts described the Justice Department’s move as highly unusual. Democrats accused Attorney General William Barr, who heads the department, of working to protect Trump’s political interests.
“The president seems to think the entire Justice Department is just his personal lawsuit to prosecute his enemies and help his friends,” Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, told reporters.
Schumer asked the department’s internal watchdog to investigate. Democrat Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, said he also would investigate the reversal.
“AG Barr must stop being the President’s lapdog. They are turning us into a banana republic,” Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen said on Twitter.
Stone, who has labeled himself a “dirty trickster” and “agent provocateur” and famously has the face of former President Richard Nixon tattooed on his back, was one of several Trump associates charged with crimes in Mueller’s investigation.
In a Monday court filing, prosecutors said their proposed sentence fell within U.S. guidelines and would “accurately reflect the seriousness of his crimes and promote respect for the law.”