(C) Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Roger Stone arrives for status hearing at U.S. District Court in Washington
By Sarah N. Lynch, Steve Holland and Eric Beech
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone, sparing him from prison after he was convicted of lying under oath to lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
Trump’s decision to commute Stone’s sentence days before he was due to report to prison marked the Republican president’s most assertive intervention to protect an associate in a criminal case and his latest use of executive clemency to benefit an ally. Democrats condemned Trump’s action, announced on Friday evening, as an assault on the rule of law.
In his first remarks on his decision, Trump on Saturday painted Stone as a victim and lashed out against Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama, with whom Biden served as vice president.
“Roger Stone was targeted by an illegal Witch Hunt that never should have taken place. It is the other side that are criminals, including the fact that Biden and Obama illegally spied on my campaign – AND GOT CAUGHT!” the president tweeted.
The veteran Republican political operative’s friendship with Trump dates back decades. Stone, 67, was scheduled to report by Tuesday to a federal prison in Jesup, Georgia, to begin serving a sentence of three years and four months.
Trump, seeking re-election on Nov. 3, opted to give Stone a commutation, which does not erase a criminal conviction, rather than a full pardon.
Stone emerged from his Fort Lauderdale, Florida home on Friday night after the commutation of his sentence was announced wearing a mask with the words “Free Roger Stone.”
“This is a horrific, horrific nightmare when you realize that this investigation never had any legitimate or lawful beginning, it was a witch hunt,” Stone said using some of the same words Trump has hurled at prosecutors and Democrats who investigated Moscow’s role in the 2016 U.S. election.
Stone was among several Trump associates charged with crimes in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that documented Russian interference to boost Trump’s 2016 candidacy.
The White House criticized Mueller’s investigation and the prosecutors in Stone’s case, saying the Left and its allies in the media attempted for years to undermine the Trump presidency.
Mueller’s investigation found extensive contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russians.
Republican reaction on Capitol Hill was largely muted, with a handful of Trump allies welcoming the action.
But Senator Mitt Romney, the only Republican to vote to convict Trump at his Senate impeachment trial, denounced the action on Twitter: “Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president.”
Congressional Democrats and other critics have accused Trump of undermining the rule of law by publicly complaining about criminal cases against associates including Stone, former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
“Congress will take action to prevent this type of brazen wrongdoing,” U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement on Saturday. “Legislation is needed to ensure that no president can pardon or commute the sentence of an individual who is engaged in a cover-up campaign to shield that president from criminal prosecution.”
GUILTY ON ALL COUNTS
A Washington jury in November 2019 convicted Stone on all seven criminal counts of obstruction of a congressional investigation, five counts of making false statements to Congress and tampering with a witness.
Trump repeatedly lashed out on Twitter about Stone’s case, accusing prosecutors of being corrupt, the juror forewoman of political bias and the judge of treating his friend unfairly.
Attorney General William Barr earlier intervened in the case to scale back the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation, leading four career prosecutors to quit the proceedings.
One of them, Aaron Zelinsky, told lawmakers on June 24 that his supervisor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington was told to go easy on Stone for political reasons.
Stone was convicted for lying to the House Intelligence Committee about his attempts to contact WikiLeaks, the website that released damaging emails about Trump’s 2016 Democratic election rival Hillary Clinton that U.S. intelligence officials have concluded were stolen by Russian hackers.
The U.S. Constitution gives a president the “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.” Trump’s use of this executive clemency often has benefited allies and well-connected political figures.
He pardoned hardline former Arizona county sheriff Joe Arpaio, former Republican White House aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby, conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza and convicted “junk bond king” Michael Milken. He also commuted the prison sentence of Democratic former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who had been a contestant on Trump’s former reality TV show.
Stone has been a fixture in American partisan battles dating to the 1970s. A colorful figure known for his natty attire, he has labeled himself an “agent provocateur” and famously has the face of former President Richard Nixon tattooed on his back.