Eight months after a jury found political hatchet man Roger Stone guilty on seven counts including witness tampering and lying to Congress, President Trump rescued his former adviser and consigliere of sorts. According to multiple news outlets on Friday evening, Trump granted Stone clemency just days before Stone would begin a 40-month prison sentence.
It’s only the latest decision in which Trump has used the official powers of the presidency to reward his friends and allies while punishing his critics and investigators. Supporters such as Stone, former sheriff Joe Arpaio, and conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza have all seen their sentences wiped clean by presidential pardons. At the same time, the Trump administration has forced out people like Geoffrey Berman, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who was leading investigations into Trump associates, or former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who testified in this year’s Trump impeachment proceedings.
But the commutation of Stone’s sentence checks all the boxes. Trump has handed a last-minute reprieve to a long-time adviser and ferocious defender, but he has also done an immeasurable favor to someone who knows Trump’s secrets and could make Trump’s life miserable.
To understand this, it’s necessary to go back to one of the lingering mysteries of the 2016 campaign: What did Trump and his campaign aides know about WikiLeaks’ release of stolen Democratic emails, and when did they know it? An early adviser to Trump’s campaign, Stone later became an intermediary of sorts between the campaign and WikiLeaks.
This supposed back channel was a focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In his written answers submitted to Mueller’s team, Trump said he didn’t remember “the specifics of any call” he had with Stone the campaign and didn’t recall discussing WikiLeaks with Stone. But as a recently disclosed portion of Mueller’s final report makes clear, witnesses told the Special Counsel’s investigators that Trump “discussed WikiLeaks with Stone” and knew that senior campaign aides had asked Stone about what other damaging material WikiLeaks had on Hillary Clinton.
Mueller’s final report says that it’s possible Trump no longer remembered his interactions with Stone, but his answers “could also be viewed as reflecting his awareness that Stone could provide evidence that would run counter to the President’s denials and would link the President to Stone’s efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks.” In other words, there was good reason to believe Trump had lied to them — and the person who could prove it was Roger Stone.
In Stone’s 2019 trial, federal prosecutors argued that Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee about his attempts to establish a line of communication with WikiLeaks in order to protect the president. “He knew that if the truth came out about what he was doing in 2016, it would look terrible,” an assistant U.S. attorney, Jonathan Kravis, told jurors. “Roger Stone knew that if this information came out it would look really bad for his longtime associate Donald Trump.”
Trump did little to dispel that notion. After the trial, he said he would “love to see Roger exonerated” and on Twitter attacked a member of the jury that had reached the unanimous verdict. “There has rarely been a juror so tainted as the forewoman in the Roger Stone case,” he said. “Look at her background. She never revealed her hatred of ‘Trump’ and Stone. She was totally biased, as is the judge. Roger wasn’t even working on my campaign. Miscarriage of justice. Sad to watch!”
There has rarely been a juror so tainted as the forewoman in the Roger Stone case. Look at her background. She never revealed her hatred of “Trump” and Stone. She was totally biased, as is the judge. Roger wasn’t even working on my campaign. Miscarriage of justice. Sad to watch!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2020
Then, when it came time to sentence Stone, Attorney General William Barr overruled the career prosecutors assigned to the case who recommended Stone serve seven to nine years in prison. Instead, Barr and one of his deputies urged a much lighter sentence. In response, the four career prosecutors assigned to the case withdrew — and one resigned from the government entirely. Aaron Zelinsky, one of the four prosecutors, later testified before Congress that Stone’s preferential treatment was the result of his friendship with Trump. “What I heard — repeatedly — was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the president,” Zelinsky testified.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson ended up giving Stone three years and four months.
As recently as Friday, the same day Trump commuted his sentence, Stone said in an interview that there was “enormous pressure to turn on” the president but he refused to do it. “It would have eased my situation considerably,” Stone told journalist Howard Fineman. “But I didn’t.”
But now, Stone won’t serve a minute in prison for a crime a jury of his peers unanimously convicted him of. He will go free, a walking reminder of a justice system perverted and weaponized by a president who sees himself as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong.
“The Supreme Court just sent the president a clear message that he is not above the law,” says Justin Florence, founder and co-director of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group dedicated to resisting authoritarianism in the U.S. “By pardoning Roger Stone, the President’s retort seems to be ‘Yes, I am.'”