'Really shocking': Trump's meddling in Stone case stuns Washington

By Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman

President Donald Trump’s post-impeachment acquittal behavior is casting a chill in Washington, with Attorney General William Barr emerging as a key ally in the president’s quest for vengeance against the law enforcement and national security establishment that initiated the Russia and Ukraine investigations.

In perhaps the most tumultuous day yet for the Justice Department under Trump, four top prosecutors withdrew on Tuesday from a case involving the president’s longtime friend Roger Stone after senior department officials overrode their sentencing recommendation—a backpedaling that DOJ veterans and legal experts suspect was influenced by Trump’s own displeasure with the prosecutors’ judgment.

“With Bill Barr, on an amazing number of occasions … you can be almost 100 percent certain that there’s something improper going on,” said Donald Ayer, the former deputy attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration.

The president has only inflamed such suspicions, congratulating Barr on Wednesday for intervening in Stone’s case and teeing off hours later on the prosecutors, calling them “Mueller people” who treated Stone “very badly.”

The president said he had not spoken with Barr about the matter, but Ayer called the attorney general’s apparent intervention “really shocking,” because Barr “has now entered into the area of criminal sanction, which is the one area probably more than any other where it’s most important that the Justice Department’s conduct be above reproach and beyond suspicion.”

To many of Trump’s critics, the episode was the most alarming in a series of Trump’s post-acquittal reprisals: Last week, he dismissed two officials who were key witnesses in his impeachment— Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland—and a third, NSC ethics lawyer Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, whose main indiscretion seemed to be his last name. The Vindmans, who are twin brothers, have returned to the Army.

Barr’s evident intervention in matters of personal interest to the president, particularly as they relate to former campaign advisers once at the center of Mueller’s Russia probe, has now put the reputation of an entire institution at risk, DOJ veterans said. It sent an alarming signal to hundreds of line attorneys inside the department, who may now fear that any work touching on the president’s allies will be subject to political interference, they said. And it could undo decades of post-Watergate work to separate the president from the justice system, in ways that could damage DOJ’s credibility with federal judges and with the public as a whole.

“I do have concerns regarding the independence of that office on certain matters, and to some extent, the office’s credibility, particularly with judges,” said Channing Phillips, who served as the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia from October 2015 to September 2017.

The president’s campaign of retribution apparently doesn’t stop there: He also pulled former U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu’s nomination to serve in a senior Treasury Department post, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin confirmed during a hearing on Wednesday.

As the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Liu oversaw the prosecutions of Stone, Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, while the office’s case against former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe—who Trump has repeatedly lambasted—has languished without an indictment.

Mnuchin would not tell the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday why Liu’s nomination was withdrawn. Liu, who at one point was considered for the No. 3 job at the Justice Department, would likely have faced tough questions from lawmakers about the president’s conduct during her public confirmation hearing that was scheduled for Thursday.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the record on Wednesday. But DOJ veterans and other legal experts who spoke to POLITICO unanimously agreed that Tuesday’s act of protest by the career prosecutors on the Stone case was unprecedented.

“I've never seen anything this dramatic,” said Mary McCord, the former acting assistant attorney general for national security, who accused Barr and his deputy Jeffrey Rosen of being “willing to do the president’s bidding for political purposes in individual cases.”

The four attorneys who withdrew from the Stone case “should be seen as heroes in some respects,” said Phillips. “It was obviously a courageous action on their part.”

“It’s a pretty dramatic thing to do,” said Edward MacMahon, Jr., a veteran D.C. defense attorney who has dealt with the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office for decades. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

Trump criticized the prosecutors in harsh terms in his off-the-cuff remarks on Wednesday, contrasting the high end of their recommended sentence for Stone to those doled out to “murderers and drug addicts.”

“They put him in for nine years,” Trump said. “It’s a disgrace.”

That argument angered even some Republicans, who said it amounted to a demand for favorable treatment for the president's allies.

“There are literally tens of thousands of people in prison under such very harsh sentences,” said Charles Fried, the former solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan. “The question is: Do you get to be treated differently from this vast army of harshly punished persons because you are in fact a crony of the president? Well, I think the question answers itself.”

Nor is Stone the first Trump ally to benefit from his attempts to influence the justice system, others noted.

Eddie Gallagher, a retired Navy SEAL who had been demoted and charged with war crimes, was freed from pretrial detention and had his rank restored by Trump after being convicted of posing for a picture with a dead ISIS fighter. Richard Spencer, the Navy secretary at the time, asked Trump not to intervene further and was fired; Special Warfare Rear Adm. Collin Green, a Navy admiral who clashed with Trump over the Gallagher case, will reportedly resign his post early.

Trump declared on Tuesday that he had an “absolute right” to intervene in the Stone case, though he denied doing so. And his allies cautioned that the post-Watergate model of clear boundaries between the president and the Justice Department is just an accepted norm, not a legal imperative.

John Dowd, a former DOJ attorney who was Trump’s personal lawyer for a portion of the Mueller probe, said that “this idea that DOJ is independent of the president is nonsense.”

Dowd said it appeared to him that the prosecutors, “the same crowd wedded to the Mueller agenda,” had been “grossly insubordinate” in recommending a steep sentence for Stone despite senior DOJ officials’ reported objections, and that Barr was doing the right thing by “cleaning up” the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office.

“Trump wasn’t out of line,” Dowd added. “He is the chief law enforcement officer. He has the right to react, and [the sentencing recommendation] was horrible.”

Mark Corallo, a former Bush DOJ official who also served briefly as the spokesman for Trump’s legal team, said he thought Barr had “finally done the right thing.”

“The idea that career prosecutors would ask for a 9-year sentence against Roger Stone on a process crime is the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment,” he said.

MacMahon, the defense attorney, noted that while he believes the sentencing guidelines are “out of whack,” and that the 7-9 year sentence prosecutors recommended for Stone was “heavy and unrealistic,” Trump’s comments were still inappropriate. “Should the president be intervening publicly in a criminal case?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

“Barr works for the president. That’s a matter of fact,” he added. “But that doesn’t mean DOJ’s decisions have to be political—they’re supposed to be in furtherance of the rule of law.”

Not even members of the conservative Federalist Society, whose co-chairman Leonard Leo has helped Trump stock the nation’s courts with conservative judges, seemed completely comfortable with the president’s conduct.

“I’m not super bothered in that it isn’t uncommon for senior members of DOJ to ‘interfere’ with individual prosecutions done by U.S. attorneys,” said one member of the Federalist Society who clerked for a conservative Supreme Court justice. But “from an optics perspective, sure, it is concerning,” this person acknowledged, adding that “it looks like Trump is getting involved in his friends’” cases.

The fact that Stone’s crime was related to election interference, which is what Trump was impeached over, only makes it look worse, this person said.

Another Federalist Society member and former Trump administration official acknowledged that the prosecutors’ withdrawal had damaged the image of the Justice Department, but characterized the furor over the Stone case as the result of “a horrible lack of communication” between DOJ leadership and the prosecutors on the case.

But DOJ veterans disputed that.

“Under department policy, the sentencing recommendation would have been reached after consultation all the way up” through the attorney general, McCord said.

Former FBI general counsel Jim Baker echoed that assessment, noting that the “ethos of DOJ is to operate by consensus.”

The prosecutors’ withdrawing from the case is a sign that that didn’t happen, Baker said, and is “a very strong statement that something seriously wrong was afoot.”

Ultimately, Stone’s fate will be left to Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who Trump has attacked with unfounded accusations of political bias.

Jackson denied Stone’s motion for a new trial last week and Stone is set to be sentenced on February 20. Baker said he expects Jackson to put the lawyers on the record about the sentencing confusion, “to find out why DOJ so dramatically changed its legal position and all of the lawyers resigned from the case,” he said. The revised memo the DOJ put out on Tuesday was signed by Timothy Shea, interim U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and John Crabb, Jr., the acting chief for that office’s criminal division.

Stone’s allies, meanwhile, are still hoping for a presidential pardon. “This entire investigation was a political hit job, and we believe the MAGA movement agrees: The president should pardon Roger Stone,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser who founded a committee on Wednesday aimed at encouraging a pardon for Stone.

Trump has not ruled it out. But a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed hope that the president opts against it.

“It’s not necessary. Because the guy committed serious crimes,” the official said, referring to Stone. “Donald Trump is impressed when people do a good job for him and don’t make themselves the story. Oh, and don’t break the law.”

Quint Forgey contributed.