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Does the Roger Stone fight hurt the Justice Department’s credibility?

Outrage over the Justice Department's new, shorter sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, an ally of President Trump, bubbled over on Wednesday on Capitol Hill, where congressional critics of the president say he unfairly interfered to help a friend. Are the Justice Department's moves justified? Yamiche Alcindor talks with two former Justice Department officials, Mary McCord and James Trusty.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ultimately, it's for a judge to decide, but the wrangling in the U.S. Justice Department over how much jail time a convicted Trump confidant should receive has led to a second straight day of turmoil.

    Yamiche Alcindor begins there.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today, outrage on Capitol Hill over the Justice Department's new sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    What is more swampy, what is more fetid, what is more stinking than the most powerful person in the country literally changing the rules to benefit a crony guilty of breaking the law?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Congressional Democrats aren't alone.

    Yesterday, four career prosecutors withdrew from the case, seemingly in protest. The problem? The DOJ decided to reject their recommendation of a seven-to-nine-year prison sentence for Stone.

    The president sounded off from the Oval Office today during a meeting with the president of Ecuador.

  • President Donald Trump:

    He was treated very badly. Nine years recommended by four people that perhaps they were Mueller people. I don't know who they were, prosecutors.

    It's a disgrace. And, frankly, they ought to apologize to a lot of the people whose lives they have ruined.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Stone, a longtime friend and adviser of President Trump, was found guilty last November of seven charges, including witness tampering and lying to Congress.

    The charges all relate to Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Critics of President Trump say he unfairly interfered in the case to help a friend.

    This morning, White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley denied any interference. He also defended the president's right to voice his opinions on the case.

  • Hogan Gidley:

    The president didn't have a conversation with the attorney general at all, but he has the right to do it.

    Just because someone happens to be wrapped up in a 2.5-year investigation that cost the taxpayers $40 million doesn't mean the president doesn't have a right to comment on it, whether he knows them or not.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on the Judiciary Committee to conduct an emergency hearing on the case. A judge today also rejected a request from Stone for a new trial. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for next week.

    Now, are the Justice Department's moves justified, or is the agency crossing a line?

    Mary McCord served for nearly 20 years in the office that prosecuted the case against Roger Stone. She later became the department's top national security official. She's now with Georgetown University's Law Center. And James Trusty, he was previously a federal prosecutor in Maryland, before becoming chief of the Justice Department's Organized Crime section. He's now in private practice.

    Thanks to both of you for being here.

    Mary McCord, I'm going to start with you.

    What do you make of what's happening surrounding the sentencing of Roger Stone? And what do you think it might do to the credibility of the Justice Department?

  • Mary McCord:

    Well, I think this causes really lasting damage to the credibility and reputation of the Justice Department.

    The prosecutors here signed a sentencing memorandum with a recommendation in it, and the judiciary is entitled to rely on those representations, as the voice of the Department of Justice in this criminal case.

    And under department policy, in any high-profile case, decisions such as sentencing go all the way up the flagpole. Right? So this would have been discussed with the deputy attorney general's office, the attorney general's office before any recommendation was made.

    So to have that then pulled back and undermined, and a new filing come the next day, is very unprecedented and hard to explain, other than it being in response to the president's tweets and the president's displeasure and dissatisfaction with the recommended sentence.

    And so that fact, in and of itself, really harms the credibility of the Justice Department, in the eyes of the court, but also in the eyes, I think, of the American people.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    James, what do you make of what she's saying?

    She's saying — she's saying that this could harm the agency's credibility? Is the DOJ immune to politicization?

  • James Trusty:

    Well, that's what you want, right? I mean, you want a system where it is an apolitical entity.

    But you also have to keep in mind that the president and the attorney general can be chummy as it gets. You had one president who picked his brother to be the attorney general.

    The question is whether that relationship and any conversation they have trickles down in some untoward way, whether that somehow jeopardizes the notion of pursuing small-J justice that they're all supposed to have.

    And I think, when you really look at this case, although it's playing out openly, which creates a real circus, right, and all sorts of political aspects to that, but the real narrow issue is what's fair in the case of this guy named Stone.

    And a lot of people look at the guideline calculations that started this off and said, wow, they're really going hard to come up with a seven-, eight-, nine-year range, instead of something like two or three or four.

    And that's — there's a very narrow factual dispute underneath it all that really drives the guidelines, which drives that recommendation.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Sticking with you, President Trump has called these prosecutors Mueller people, referring to Robert Mueller, the former special counsel — special prosecutor.

    That being said, four prosecutors seemingly resigned in protest. How unusual is this?

  • James Trusty:

    That's very unusual.

    Look, no matter what the actual merits are at the end of the day — and we don't really know yet — we know that four prosecutors felt very strongly. I think one or two left the Department of Justice. One just said, I'm going to head back up to Baltimore, where I have been working. So it's not quite the same level of sacrifice.

    But there's clearly a communication break here. There's clearly problems in terms of the line attorneys, the supervisors, and maybe crossing over to DOJ main Justice.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Mary McCord, I want to go to you for a sort of hypothetical that some people think actually happened, which is, what if President Trump did call on Attorney General — Attorney General Barr and say, my friend is being possibly sentenced, can you please lower that sentencing recommendation?

    And then the Department of Justice, possibly, again, an attorney general, says, yes. Because the president's friend is facing this, we're going to lower our sentencing.

    Is first the president's call illegal? And is the Department of Justice responding to the president illegal?

  • Mary McCord:

    It's not.

    As Jim said, there's — the attorney general and the president can be as chummy as they want. In fact, the attorney general is an executive branch official who reports directly to the president.

    But, historically, and for very good reason, both the Department of Justice and the White House have had strict policies that bar in most circumstances communications between the White House and the Department of Justice about individual decisions in individual cases.

    And the reason for that is to maintain the independence of the Department of Justice to assure the American people that that department is not just the arm of the president to — for him to wield however he wants for his political purposes, particularly when we're talking about criminal prosecutions which come out of the Department of Justice, but to be able to establish that we maintain this type of independence.

    And when that's broken down, whether it's through actual direct phone calls or conversations or through publicly making statements, as the president has done, really excoriating the recommendation and calling on DOJ leadership to do something about it, and then, of course, thanking them for doing something about it, either way, that sort of violates these internal guidance that are there for good reasons.

    And I would just — if I may, just — I would quarrel a little bit, I think, with Jim saying the narrow — that the issue here is the sentence.

    I think that's — reasonable minds can differ about whether a sentence in the guideline range of seven to nine years is too harsh for this conduct. And I'm sure reasonable minds, in the consultations, did differ about that.

    To me, what is so dramatic and outrageous about this case is the fact that the department appeared to have responded to a direct — either direct or indirect request from the president to change a recommendation, so that he could do a favor to one of his personal friends and someone who had gone out in the 2016 campaign and really welcomed foreign interference in our election.

    That's to me the real story here.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Part of what Mary McCord was just talking about was the president's public statements.

    I want to point to one of them. He's been going after Judge Amy Berman Jackson. I want to put up a tweet that he sent out. She is the judge that is ultimately going to sentence Roger Stone.

  • He tweeted:

    "Is this the judge that put Paul Manafort in solitary confinement, something that not even mobster Al Capone had to endure? How did she treat crooked Hillary Clinton? Just asking."

    Now, Paul Manafort was a former chairman of the president's 2016 campaign. He's now in federal prison for unrelated crimes that have to do with finances.

    But the question is, should a president be going after a judge? The American Bar Association says that that's not the right thing for public officials to be doing. What do you make of that, James?

  • James Trusty:

    Well, look, Mary, I was in — I have been in the criminal justice system for a long time, 27 years as a prosecutor, three in private practice.

    And it always feels unseemly. It's never a happy moment to see criticism of a judge. All of us have had tough cases, tough trials, where we get frustrated, and say, we got the wrong call or the wrong result.

    And what you do is, you go home in the backyard and you mutter to yourself and drink a beer and get over it.

    So it's a very different platform, obviously, when a president has the opportunity to personally criticize these judges.

    Look, he's got a lot of legitimate, I think, frustration in terms of the last few years. But calling out judges by name is not particularly helpful for the criminal justice system or the respect that other people will have for the system, which is what we all worry about.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And, of course, as you mentioned, this isn't the first time a president — that President Trump has gone after a judge.

    But thank you so much to both of you for being here, Mary McCord and James Trusty. I really appreciate it.

  • James Trusty:

    Sure. Thanks.

  • Mary McCord:

    Thank you, Yamiche.

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