The prosecution team in Roger Stone's criminal case abruptly resigned from the case on Tuesday after the Justice Department said it planned to reduce the recommended sentence for the longtime Trump associate.
The Justice Department on Tuesday said it was pulling back on its request to sentence Stone to seven to nine years in prison after President Donald Trump blasted the sentencing proposal as "a miscarriage of justice."
The revised recommendation doesn't ask for a particular sentence but says the one that was recommended earlier "does not accurately reflect the Department of Justice’s position on what would be a reasonable sentence in this matter" and that the actual sentence should be "far less."
It urges the judge in the case, Amy Berman Jackson, to consider Stone’s “advanced age, health, person circumstances, and lack of criminal history in fashioning an appropriate sentence.”
"The defendant committed serious offenses and deserves a sentence of incarceration," but based "on the facts known to the government, a sentence of between 87 to 108 months’ imprisonment, however, could be considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances. Ultimately, the government defers to the Court as to what specific sentence is appropriate under the facts and circumstances of this case," the filing said.
After reports that a softer sentencing recommendation was imminent, lead prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky withdrew as a prosecutor in the case. A footnote in his court filing noted that "the undersigned attorney has resigned effective immediately."
Zelinsky, who was a part of former special counsel Robert Mueller's team investigating Russian election interference, is not resigning from the Justice Department but is leaving the Washington, D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office and returning to his old job with the U.S. Attorney in Maryland.
Another one of the prosecutors, Jonathan Kravis, also resigned— both from the case and his job as an assistant U.S. attorney. Kravis on Tuesday filed a notice with the judge saying he "no longer represents the government in this matter." The other two prosecutors, Adam Jed and Michael Marando, also withdrew from the case.
Trump in a tweet earlier in the day called the department's initial sentencing proposal "disgraceful!"
"This is a horrible and very unfair situation,” the president wrote in a follow-up post on Twitter. "The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!"
Top Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec told NBC News that the decision to reverse course on the sentencing recommendation was made prior to Trump’s almost 2 a.m. tweet.
The president told reporters in the Oval Office later Tuesday that he did not speak to DOJ about Stone's sentencing. "I'd be able to do it if I wanted. I have the absolute right to do it. I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn't believe," he said, before adding that he "thought the recommendation was ridiculous. I thought the whole prosecution was ridiculous."
"I thought it was an insult to our country and it shouldn't happen," Trump said. "These are the same Mueller people who put everybody through hell and I think it's a disgrace."
Joyce Vance, an MSNBC contributor and former federal prosecutor, tweeted the dual withdrawal notices from the prosecutors speak "loudly to those of us who used to work at DOJ. There is a 4-alarm fire at Justice."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in a tweet called on the Justice Department Inspector General to "open an investigation "immediately."
"The president seems to think the entire Justice Department is just his personal lawsuit to prosecute his enemies and help his friends. Rule of law in this grand tradition in this wonderful Justice Department is just being totally perverted to Donald Trump's own personal desires and needs and it's a disgrace," Schumer told reporters in Washington, D.C. "Roger Stone should get the full amount of time the prosecutors recommended and we're going to do some oversight of that."
Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who was the lead prosecutor in Trump's impeachment trial, said that "if If reports are correct, the Department of Justice and Attorney General Bill Barr are poised to overrule career prosecutors who made a sentencing recommendation yesterday, following a midnight tweet from the President attacking the proposed length of sentence."
Schiff said it would "it would be a blatant abuse of power if President Trump has in fact intervened to reverse the recommendations of career prosecutors at the Department of Justice."
"Doing so would send an unmistakable message that President Trump will protect those who lie to Congress to cover up his own misconduct, and that the Attorney General will join him in that effort. Coupled with the President’s blatant retaliation against those who helped expose his wrongdoing, the Trump Administration poses the gravest threat to the rule of law in America in a generation," Schiff said.
David Laufman, a former senior Justice Department official, tweeted that the move was "a shocking, cram-down political intervention in the criminal justice process. We are now truly at a break-glass-in-case-of-fire moment for the Justice Dept."
Federal prosecutors initially sought seven to nine years in prison for Stone in a sentencing memorandum they filed Monday in Washington, D.C. Prosecutors said the recommendation was in line with the sentencing guideline outlined by federal law.
"Roger Stone obstructed Congress's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, lied under oath, and tampered with a witness," prosecutors wrote in a 26-page memo. "When his crimes were revealed by the indictment in this case, he displayed contempt for this court and the rule of law."
In Stone's sentencing memo, his lawyers argued a sentence of 15-21 months would be appropriate — and that anything above that was excessive.
Stone, a self-described "dirty trickster," has been well-known in conservative circles dating to President Richard Nixon's campaign. Stone, a Trump associate for over three decades, also served early on as an adviser to Trump's 2016 campaign and has called the case against him politically motivated.
Stone was arrested and charged just over a year ago. He was the sixth Trump aide or adviser to be convicted of charges brought as part of the former special counsel Robert Mueller's probe. The colorful trial in Washington lasted nearly two weeks and featured references to "The Godfather Part II," threats of dognapping, complaints of food poisoning and a gag order. The jury deliberated for two days before handing down the verdict.
The revised sentencing memorandum downplays the witness tampering charge, noting that the victim of Stone's threat of physical harm, talk radio host Randy Credico, "asserts that he did not perceive a genuine threat from the defendant but rather stated that ‘I never in any way felt that Stone himself posed a direct physical threat to me or my dog'."
As a member of Mueller's team, Zelinsky would play both good and bad cop while questioning witnesses in the Russia probe, witnesses told MSNBC's Ari Melber last year. Former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg said Zelinsky, who has clerked for Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and John Paul Stevens, was professional and asked appropriate questions. Another witness, Jerome Corsi, said Zelinsky was "a thug" who was "acting up" during his questioning.
This is not the first time a Trump associate in a Mueller-derived case has caught a sentencing break. Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was sentenced to 47 months in prison last March by a federal judge in Virginia on financial fraud charges, considerably less than the federal guidelines of 19½ to 24 years. The judge in that case, Judge T.S. Ellis, called the guidelines "excessive."