The entire prosecution team for Roger Stone’s case abruptly withdrew from that proceeding Tuesday afternoon, just over a week before Stone’s sentencing — in an apparent protest of interference from Justice Department higher-ups over a sentencing recommendation for the longtime Trump adviser.
First, Aaron Zelinsky, who worked on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team and then aided the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia in Stone’s trial, told a judge in a filing Tuesday that he was withdrawing from the case and had “resigned effective immediately” from his role in that office, where he was on temporary assignment.
Now, it does not appear that Zelinsky is resigning from the Justice Department entirely — his regular post is in the US Attorney’s Office for Maryland, and he does not mention resigning from that.
Yet shortly afterward, a second Stone prosecutor, Jonathan Kravis, told the court he was also leaving the case because he “has resigned as an Assistant United States Attorney.” And then the other two prosecutors on the team, Adam Jed and Michael Marando, announced that they were withdrawing as well (though not resigning). Taken together, the moves are an unmistakable protest against Justice Department leadership.
Stone was indicted by Mueller’s team in January 2019 and charged with making false statements, obstruction, and witness tampering. The charges focused on Stone’s alleged lies to the House Intelligence Committee in 2017 about his statements on and efforts to get in touch with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign. He was convicted on all seven counts at trial in November.
With Stone’s sentencing date of February 20 approaching, prosecutors had to submit their sentencing memo for him on Monday. In it, the prosecutors said that a sentence for Stone of between 87 and 108 months (about seven to nine years) — a range calculated by the probation office, in accordance with standard sentencing guidelines — would be “appropriate.”
President Trump responded to this with outrage in a set of late-night tweets and retweets. “This is a horrible and very unfair situation,” he tweeted at 1:48 am Tuesday. “The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”
This immediately stoked speculation about whether Trump planned to pardon Stone or commute his sentence. Then later Tuesday morning, reporters started to hear that the Justice Department was in fact going to change its position.
A senior Justice Department source told the Washington Post Tuesday that “the Department finds seven to nine years extreme, excessive and grossly disproportionate” — and that they’d “clarify” their position “later today.” That source claimed they made this decision to do so before Trump posted his tweet (a claim that’s been greeted with much skepticism).
Such interference in a sentencing recommendation made by career prosecutors is highly unusual. And what happened next was even more unusual — Zelinsky informed the court he was withdrawing from Stone’s case just days before sentencing and resigning his special posting with the DC US Attorney’s Office. Kravis then said he was resigning from DOJ entirely, which was followed by Jed and Marando withdrawing from the case as well.
Then, a new prosecutor on the case, John Crabb, then submitted a filing to the court saying that the previous sentencing memo for Stone “does not accurately reflect the Department of Justice’s position on what would be a reasonable sentence in this matter.” Crabb wrote that the government believes “a sentence of incarceration far less than 87 to 108 months’ imprisonment would be reasonable under the circumstances” — but that they’ll defer to Judge Amy Berman Jackson on what, exactly, that would be.
Yet it is not the first example of a curious change in a sentencing recommendation for a close Trump ally. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is also awaiting sentencing for his guilty plea in connection with the Mueller probe — and, after agreeing to cooperate with the government, apparently reneged on that commitment.
So prosecutors recommended in January that Flynn be sentenced “within” the range of zero to six months of incarceration — but, a few weeks later, added that they “do not oppose” a “sentence of probation” instead.
All of this raises yet more questions about what, exactly, is going on at the Justice Department under Attorney General Bill Barr — and whether friends (or enemies) of the president now get different rules applied to them.