Justice Department caves to on Roger Stone, and it's worse than simple cronyism

Brits use the word “fizzing” to describe a bubbling anger that grows by the minute.  I learned this after leaving my partner alone on the beach, in the middle of our vacation, while I went to the local U.S. Attorney’s Office to finish a wiretap for the FBI. It started to rain.  That’s when I got the call informing me he was “fizzing.” All I could think of was a life-sized Alka-Seltzer tablet standing in the rain.

The Justice Department’s handling of Roger Stone’s upcoming sentencing has entered the DOJ Twilight Zone, ended in a series of prosecutor withdrawals, and left me fizzing.  

Stone, an ally and former adviser to President Donald , was convicted in November of lying to Congress and threatening a witness. Stone’s convictions stem from the hack and release of Democratic emails that many believe are responsible for winning the White House. 

On Monday, the prosecutors who took Stone to trial filed sentencing papers that recommended a term of seven to nine years in prison. Here’s the important part: That sentence was called for by the federal sentencing guidelines that apply to all people convicted of federal crimes.

Apparently believing that “friend of the president” qualifies as an exemption to the prison sentences received by ordinary people, took to Twitter and decried the sentencing recommendation as “

“unfair,” and a “miscarriage of justice.” 

pressure worked

That placed his finger on the scales of justice to help a political ally is bad. But what should be sending all who revere the sanctity of DOJ’s independence into a full-fizz meltdown, is that it worked. On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced it would retract its original recommendation and ask that Stone receive a lighter sentence. 

While a Justice Department spokesperson denied that ’s tweets had anything to do with DOJ’s whiplashed sentencing recommendation, this maneuver has Attorney General William Barr’s sticky fingerprints all over it. 

Story continues

It is wildly unusual to recommend a below-guidelines sentence for a person who is convicted at trial. It is reprehensible to undercut the prosecutors who successfully convicted Stone, by forcing a retraction of their sentencing papers. But it is regretfully predictable that Barr would intervene to save and those most closely orbiting him. 

Roger Stone on March 21, 2017 in Boca Raton, Florida.

Roger Stone on March 21, 2017 in Boca Raton, Florida.

Roger Stone on March 21, 2017 in Boca Raton, Florida.

Barr has done it before.  He jumped Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report by releasing a mutilated summary weeks in advance, whitewashing evidence of hell and damnation into ’s “full exoneration” campaign slogan. He falsely claimed the FBI “spied” on the campaign. He contradicted his own inspector general’s key finding that the Russia investigation was legitimate. And he forced prosecutors to withdraw a prison recommendation for the president’s convicted former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and replace it with a recommendation of probation.  

When the Justice Department filed its new Stone sentencing recommendation, it asked for a sentence that is “far less” than the sentence it requested the day before. Notably, the new sentencing papers are not signed by the prosecutors who handled Stone’s trial. That’s because all four prosecutors resigned from the case, in protest of Barr’s takeover. One quit DOJ entirely. 

Rewards for supporters: 's model for America is corrupt, autocratic crony capitalism. Like in Russia.

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Perhaps Tuesday’s Democratic primary in New Hampshire captured the lion’s share of pundit commentary; or perhaps I’m more cynical than the rest. But there should be more discussion of the benefits could gain if Judge Amy Berman Jackson follows DOJ’s new sentencing recommendation and gives Stone a lighter sentence.

Roger Stone is a pampered 67-year-old man. While orange may be Stone’s favorite color in presidents, probably not so much in jumpsuit attire. Every day Stone spends in prison is another day he may decide he does not want celebrate his 76th birthday behind bars. 

Buying Roger Stone's silence

The way a prisoner gets an early release is by cooperating. Given Stone’s close relationship with , and his VIP seat at the center of the Russia investigation, if he decided to cooperate, Stone could cause a lot of problems for the president.

Reducing the amount of time Stone spends in prison dramatically reduces the risk he will tell federal investigators what he knows — and where they can find emails, photos, recordings, and documents he has likely stashed away against the day he needs them to save his own skin. Ask Rudy Giuliani; he knows the value of an “insurance policy.”

's man: With testimony on and Mueller, William Barr sinks deeper into moral quicksand

And so, Barr’s move is likely more nefarious than its obvious favoritism reveals. At best, it’s using the Justice Department to give favors to a ally that would not be available to anyone else. At worst, it’s an effort to buy Roger Stone’s silence. 

As the leader of the Justice Department, Barr should be the inspirational standard for the prosecutors who work day in and day out to support DOJ's righteous mission. Instead, Barr has chosen the path of political hack. And there’s no turning back now. Bill Barr and Donald are superglued together; if one tries to break free he will rip the skin of both. 

I’m going to be presumptuous and speak not only for myself, but for many of the federal prosecutors who devoted their professional careers to the Department of Justice. We are fizzing. But mostly, we are sad to watch a once honorable American institution devolve into a useful tool of a corrupt president.

Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to [email protected]

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Donald pressured the Justice Department to help Roger Stone

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