WASHINGTON — The decision by Trump appointees at the Justice Department to overrule career prosecutors and recommend a more lenient prison sentence for Trump adviser Roger Stone has left lawyers inside the U.S. Attorney’s Office that brought the case fuming, dejected, and looking for the exits.
Former federal prosecutors and outside justice groups tell Rolling Stone they’ve been flooded with texts and phone calls from people who work in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Washington, D.C., the same office that had convicted Stone for lying to Congress and obstructing a federal investigation. On Tuesday, the prosecutors who litigated the case recommended Stone serve seven to nine years in federal prison — a sentence well within the federal guidelines considering the crimes Stone had committed.
That’s when things got ugly. President Trump tweeted that the sentencing recommendation was “horrible and very unfair” and called it a “miscarriage of justice.” In a remarkable reversal, Timothy Shea, the interim U.S. Attorney for D.C. and former counselor to Attorney General Bill Barr, filed a new recommendation with the court. Shea blasted his own office’s earlier recommendation as “excessive and unwarranted” and asked for a lighter sentence for Stone.
Soon afterward, all four career attorneys who prosecuted Stone withdrew from the case; one quit the Justice Department entirely. Trump, for his part, congratulated Barr for “taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought.”
The Justice Department has denied that Barr acted at the direction of Trump to lighten Stone’s punishment, but the sequence of events is damning all the same. It appears as if the DOJ rebuked its own lawyers to go easy on a longtime friend of the president’s. A department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The morale of DOJ’s thousands of prosecutors is no small matter. These lawyers work on the front lines of protecting the rule of law. Disillusionment and frustration among this corps of attorneys has real-world consequences for the fair application of justice across the country.
Channing Phillips, who served in the Justice Department for nearly three decades and led the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. under Republican and Democratic presidents, including Donald Trump, tells Rolling Stone that he never witnessed a series of events during his time in public service comparable to what happened in the Stone case.
“I found the whole sequence of events deeply disturbing,” Phillips says. “I’ve never seen anything like it and I hope never to see anything like it again.”
Phillips says morale in the office “took a huge hit” this week based on the conversations he’s had. He said that Jonathan Kravis, the federal prosecutor who worked the Stone case and quit the DOJ after his recommendation was reversed, was well-respected and seen as a loyal public servant. “When you work in the trenches like we do, we feel each other’s pain, and so to see someone give up a career that they care about …” Phillips says. “On the other hand, these guys [who withdrew from the case or resigned] should be looked at as heroes, because when they took the job they took an oath, and clearly from where I sit they weren’t willing to sacrifice that oath. Kudos to them for doing that.”
Another former prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in D.C., who requested anonymity to share responses from old colleagues still working there, says lawyers are “livid and frightened” after the events of this week.
“Some are just trying to fly under the radar,” the former prosecutor tells Rolling Stone. “All are looking for jobs outside of the government, but many don’t have the time in to leave. I really never have seen anything like this.”
Former DOJ prosecutors say what’s so damning about the reversal on Stone’s sentencing is that the original recommendation by the career prosecutors fell within the federal government’s own guidelines given Stone’s crimes. In May 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent out a department-wide memo that directed prosecutors to adhere to federal sentencing guidelines — which is what the four prosecutors in the Stone case did.
Kristy Parker, a former DOJ criminal prosecutor who now works for the nonpartisan group Protect Democracy, says that what is so alarming about the reversal by higher-ups at the Justice Department is that the sentencing for Stone is well within the federal guidelines — guidelines that the Trump Justice Department has urged prosecutors to adhere to.
“What’s off about this is that the line prosecutors filed a memo recommending a guideline sentence, which is what the department’s rules require them to do unless they get permission to deviate,” Parker says. “And then the department not only rescinded it, but acted as if the line prosecutors had withheld information or hadn’t told the truth about what they were recommending. That’s just highly unlikely.”
The D.C. office is the largest of the 94 U.S. attorney’s offices. It’s also one of a kind: Since D.C. has no district attorney, federal prosecutors who work in the District litigate federal crimes like Stone’s case as well as local crimes. The office has a homicide division, tries drug and gang cases, and works closely with D.C.’s police department. More recently, the work of the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office has faced an increased amount of scrutiny as it assumed control of spinoff cases from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
In late January, Barr appointed Shea, who previously served as Barr’s counselor, to be the interim U.S. attorney in D.C. at an especially sensitive time for the office. It was Shea who signed the revised sentencing recommendation that urged the court to give a lighter sentence to Roger Stone. (The judge in the case will hand down a sentence next week.)
Channing Phillips, a former U.S. attorney for D.C., says he worries about the credibility of the office after the Stone controversy. “Four line prosecutors, who tried the case and know the case better than anyone, made a recommendation, which I thought was thoughtful and well-based. For the Justice Department to come in and say there was a miscommunication, I personally find that hard to believe,” he says. “I have concerns going forward how independent the office will actually be in matters of this nature.”