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Why Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone is ‘highly unusual’

On Friday, President Trump announced he was commuting the three-year prison sentence of his longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone. Stone was convicted by a federal jury of seven felonies, including lying to Congress and obstructing a congressional investigation. But Trump’s reprieve of Stone is raising questions and prompting criticism. Lisa Desjardins reports and joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As we reported earlier, President Trump's decision to commute the prison sentence of his longtime ally Roger Stone is raising questions.

    Our Lisa Desjardins has this report.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Friday night, Roger Stone, political strategist, lobbyist and friend and adviser to President Trump, celebrated becoming a free man, after Mr. Trump commuted his upcoming three-year prison sentence.

  • Roger Stone:

    I had a very gracious call from the president of United States, who told me that he had decided to use his extraordinary powers of clemency to commute my sentence, a — what he called a full commutation of my sentence.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Stone was convicted by a federal jury of seven felonies, five counts of lying to Congress, and one each of witness tampering and obstructing a congressional investigation, all part of the investigation into how he and the Trump campaign got a hold of damaging e-mails about Hillary Clinton that investigators found were part of a Russian attempt to sway the election.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Roger Stone was brought into this witch-hunt, this whole political witch-hunt, and the Mueller scam.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    President Trump maintains the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller was a politically motivated hoax, and defended his commutation of stone's sentence.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I'm getting rave reviews for what I did for Roger Stone.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Stone said he felt confident his conviction would be overturned on appeal anyway.

  • Roger Stone:

    The president has said on a number of other occasions that he thinks I have a good chance of exoneration.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The president's extraordinary action motivated Robert Mueller to break his year-long public silence, writing in The Washington Post — quote — "Stone was prosecuted and convicted because he committed federal crimes. He remains a convicted felon, and rightly so."

    Mueller wrote his team — quote — "identified numerous links between the Russian government and Trump campaign personnel, Stone among them."

    While the president charges that he and Stone are victims of political bias, his attorney general, Bill Barr, last week defended the Justice Department's case against Stone.

  • William Barr:

    I think the prosecution was righteous.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    ABC's Pierre Thomas asked at the time if Barr would recommend President Trump pardon or commute Stone's sentence.

  • William Barr:

    It's the president's prerogative. It's a unique power that the president has. And it's certainly something that is committed to his judgment. But, as I say, I felt it was an appropriate prosecution, and I thought the sentence was fair.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch ally of the president's, supported the commutation, noting, Stone's offenses were nonviolent.

    But some other Republicans warned of political fallout, including Maryland Governor Larry Hogan

  • Gov. Larry Hogan:

    It's certainly going to hurt politically.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Meanwhile, speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called the president's decision — quote — "appalling."

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And Roger Stone is just the latest high-profile recipient of a pardon or commutation during the Trump presidency.

    Lisa is here to help put this all into context.

    Lisa, it's good to see you.

    Let's start with the context just of this president. When you look at this decision to commute Roger Stone's sentence, how unusual is it?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, I spent the day talking to experts, some of whom worked in this office previously, and this is a highly unusual number, for two reasons.

    There are two things unusual about what the president has done here. First, while the number of commutations is relatively low — it's a small number — it's actually high for this point in any modern presidency. This is the highest number of commutations any president has had at this point in 30 years.

    The other thing that's unusual, Amna, of course, is who's getting them. Let's look at the graphic to explain. So far, the president has commuted 10 sentences. Of those, at least three are people who are personally or politically connected to the president.

    It does depend on how you count it. That number could be higher, depending on your definition of those. We're seeing Roger Stone, Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois, and the Hammond brothers, who set fire to some public lands in Oregon. And that became sort of a cause for conservatives.

    Amna, it's to understand that commutations here are actually somewhat of a higher order than pardons. Commutations, that ends or shortens a prison sentence currently under way or about to start. A pardon, the technical definition of that is a forgiveness for a felon who's already finished their sentence.

    So, for those in the Justice Department, commutations, to some degree, are more serious.

    And I will say the president has also issued a large number of pardons. And when you look at where those have gone, roughly about a third, just like the commutations, have gone to people who are personally or politically connected to this president.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let's look now at the broader American context, right?

    If you go back into history, have other presidents granted this kind of clemency to political allies? And has there been the kind of political fallout that we just heard in your report Maryland Governor Hogan say there could be?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It is so hard to compare almost anything these days to past history. We're in very unprecedented days.

    But President Trump is not the first president to commute or pardon the sentence or the felon record of a political ally or personal friend.

    Gerald Ford, many of our viewers will recognize, pardoned Richard Nixon. He was not convicted of anything, but ahead of any possible conviction. That was very controversial.

    Then, also after that, George H.W. Bush pardoned six of the co-conspirators in Iran-Contra.

    Now, Bill Clinton, some of the folks I talked to you today, say maybe the closest example, though not a perfect analogy to President Trump, he pardoned 140 people on the day he left office.

    What is the political consequences of that? Well, for Clinton and for George H.W. Bush, they did it on the way out the door. But Gerald Ford did it while he was still hoping to have a future career. Some people arguably say that that was what helped end his career.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Lisa, we heard Attorney General Barr also mention there this is all, of course, perfectly legal. It's within the president's powers.

    There's been, as we also know, a lot of debate around presidential powers recently. So, of all the experts you talked to, where does this fit in to those theories of presidential power?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, the founding fathers put this power in the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, particularly, because they wanted to make sure the justice system didn't overreach, wasn't overly harsh.

    They also wanted to have a place for — quote — "potential political forgiveness." So, Trump is not really in either of those contexts. It's hard to say.

    One other note. I want to look at how hard it is to get one of these commutations or pardons. Let's look at a graphic quickly.

    Right now, look at how many of these requests are pending, over 13,000. Those are processed by a small office of the pardon attorney. Just under two dozen people work there processing those claims, Amna, but the White House can intercede.

    And as we have seen in most of the pardons under this president, the White House has interceded, rather than going through the traditional process.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Lisa Desjardins with some important context for us tonight.

    Thanks so much, Lisa. Good to see you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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