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The ‘remarkable’ DOJ controversy over Roger Stone’s sentencing

Roger Stone, the sixth former associate of President Trump to be convicted on charges stemming from the Mueller probe, is again at the center of controversy. Federal prosecutors recommended Stone be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison, but senior Justice Department officials intervened. Now, all four line prosecutors quit the case. John Yang talks to The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Roger Stone is again at the center of controversy. This time, it is causing a shakeup at the Department of Justice.

    Stone is the sixth former associate of President Trump to be convicted on cases stemming from the Mueller investigation. Federal prosecutors recommended in a Monday night filing that Stone be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison for lying to Congress and witness tampering.

    But senior Justice Department officials intervened.

    John Yang explores how there is now a fight over how long Stone should spend in jail.

  • John Yang:

    Amna, the new filing makes no recommendation for Stone's sentence, deferring to the judge in the case. It said the original seven to nine years could be considered excessive and unwarranted.

    The shift comes hours after a middle-of-the-night presidential tweet calling the original recommendation: "horrible and very unfair. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice."

    Late today, the president said he had not intervened in the case.

  • President Donald Trump:

    No, I didn't speak to the Justice — I'd be able to do it if I wanted. I have the absolute right to do it.

    I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn't believe. But I didn't speak to him. I thought the recommendation was ridiculous. I thought the whole prosecution was ridiculous.

  • John Yang:

    And now all four of the line prosecutors in the Stone case have quit the case. And at least one of them has quit his job entirely.

    Matt Zapotosky covers the Justice Department for The Washington Post, and he joins us now from their newsroom.

    Matt, we just heard the president say he had nothing to do with this. What's your reporting tell you about how this happened and what the sequence of events was?

  • Matt Zapotosky:

    Yes, the Justice Department also denies that there was any contact between the White House and them in the last day or two, when this all transpired.

    Here's our best understanding so far. In recent days, there had been great argument internally about what to do with the Stone sentencing recommendation, with kind of these line prosecutors, these guys who tried to withdraw from the case today, advocating for a guideline sentence, seven to nine years, and their supervisors pushing back.

    We don't know exactly why they were pushing back. I think it's fair to assume now that it was probably because of pressure from Justice Department leadership.

    What happens then is very unclear. The Justice Department claims that they were sort of blindsided by the recommendation that is filed. There's a lot of reason to be skeptical about that, given that they presumably would be engaged in discussions about what was about to be filed. But they claim they're blindsided by this seven-to-nine-year recommendation that is filed yesterday.

    So, then, today, they say publicly — a senior Justice Department official says to a lot of reporters: Hey, we're going to undo this. We were surprised by this recommendation. We're going to undo it.

    And, as you reported, that's exactly what they did. They didn't say specifically, we think it should be half of seven to nine years, we think it should be three-quarters. They just said they think it should be less.

    But it's a remarkable, a stunning rebuke of the career prosecutors who by that point had all moved to withdraw themselves from the case.

  • John Yang:

    How unusual is the back-and-forth between the line prosecutors and the higher-ups in the Justice Department over something like this? And how unusual is it to completely reverse the recommendation entirely?

  • Matt Zapotosky:

    Back-and-forths over a sentencing recommendation are not that unusual.

    It's very typical for prosecutors to want to be aggressive, and either their bosses or even political leaders to say, well, I think you're taking this a little too personal. I think you're going a little too far.

    But that's not exactly what we seem to have here. I don't — can't say that I have ever seen a case where the department has made a recommendation, and then, not 24 hours later, reversed itself. That's just so unusual.

    And given that there was such debate, you would think that Justice Department leaders would be paying close attention to what was filed and would want to sign off on what was about to be filed. So, we still have a lot of questions there.

    But suffice it to say, this is all very unusual. While debate about what should be recommended is not unusual, we have something much more than that in this case.

  • John Yang:

    And the line prosecutors, the prosecutors who know the details of the case, involved in it day to day, they're the assistant U.S. attorneys who appear in court, as opposed to the U.S. attorney, who sort of supervises the office, the four line attorneys in this case have now left the case, one of them quitting the Justice Department altogether.

    What's the message there? What do you make of that?

  • Matt Zapotosky:

    They have not given a reason for that, but, again, the implication here seems clear.

    So, it's only hours after the Justice Department says publicly it's going to reverse their recommendation that all this happened. And it's so unusual for prosecutors to withdraw from a case. When they do it, it's because they sort of can't ethically attach their name to filings in that case.

    People might remember you saw that in the Affordable Care Act case, when attorneys at the Justice Department felt they couldn't get behind the Trump administration's position on that.

    You saw kind of a similar thing in the census case, when career attorneys were replaced on that by the Justice Department after possibly voicing some objection. So, that seems to be what you have here again, the career prosecutors, guys who weren't politically appointed by President Trump, resigning from the case, one from the department entirely, one from his post in the D.C. U.S. attorney's office, after the department sort of undercut them and said, we're going in a different direction.

  • John Yang:

    Matt Zapotosky at The Washington Post, thanks so much.

  • Matt Zapotosky:

    Thank you.

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