Trump Commutes Roger Stone’s Sentence

A shocking and yet completely unsurprising development.

The President has used his plenary power to commute the 40-month prison sentence of his longtime advisor for lying to Congress. People are understandably outraged.

The NYT (“Trump Commutes Sentence of Roger Stone in Case He Long Denounced“):

President Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime friend Roger J. Stone Jr. on seven felony crimes on Friday, using the power of his office to spare a former campaign adviser days before Mr. Stone was to report to a federal prison to serve a 40-month term.

In a lengthy written statement punctuated by the sort of inflammatory language and angry grievances characteristic of the president’s Twitter feed, the White House denounced the “overzealous prosecutors” who convicted Mr. Stone on “process-based charges” stemming from the “witch hunts” and “Russia hoax” investigation.

The statement did not assert that Mr. Stone was innocent of the false statements and obstruction counts, only that he should not have been pursued because prosecutors ultimately filed no charges of an underlying conspiracy between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia. “Roger Stone has already suffered greatly,” it said. “He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!”

The commutation, announced late on a Friday, when potentially damaging news is often released, was the latest action by the Trump administration upending the justice system to help the president’s convicted friends. The Justice Department moved in May to dismiss its own criminal case against Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. And last month, Mr. Trump fired Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States attorney whose office prosecuted Michael D. Cohen, the president’s former personal lawyer, and has been investigating Rudolph W. Giuliani, another of his lawyers.

This may shock some of you but CNN has found the statement chock-full of lies (“Debunking 12 lies and falsehoods from the White House statement on Roger Stone’s commutation“). Given the length, I’ll leave it to interested readers to click through.

The Washington Post Editorial Board has declared “Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone’s sentence is an unforgivable betrayal of his office.”

THERE ARE no doubt thousands of people in federal prison who deserved a presidential commutation more than Roger Stone. But after President Trump’s intervention on Friday, Mr. Stone will serve none of his prison sentence. The president may have had the power to help his longtime friend. But that does not make it any less a perversion of justice — indeed, it is one of the most nauseating instances of corrupt government favoritism the United States has ever seen.

There is no doubt about Mr. Stone’s guilt. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he tried to play intermediary between WikiLeaks, which had become a front for the Kremlin, and the Trump campaign, which reaped the benefits of WikiLeaks’s publication of stolen Democratic emails. A jury concluded that Mr. Stone obstructed Congress, lied to investigators and tampered with a witness in the investigations that followed the 2016 race — “covering up for the president,” as the judge in his case noted.

Though Attorney General William P. Barr moved to reduce Mr. Stone’s sentencing recommendation after conviction, even he called the case against Mr. Stone a “righteous” prosecution. He was sentenced to 40 months in prison and was due to surrender on Tuesday — thus prompting Mr. Trump’s Friday night action.

As Mr. Trump discussed granting clemency to his criminal friend, Mr. Barr publicly defended the sentence, perhaps to prevent a mutiny among Justice Department staff who signed up because they believe in the rule of law, not the arbitrary rule of an unusually petty man in the White House.

Now, the department’s career investigators and prosecutors must absorb yet another insult to their profession from political leaders who abuse their trust. We can only sympathize with their impossible position. A Justice Department brain drain would only reduce fairness and competence in federal law enforcement. It would no doubt take years of rebuilding to reattract the talent that Mr. Trump’s rule has already repelled from the department, let alone to replace a late-term exodus of staff. Yet we can blame no one in the Justice Department for misgivings or feelings of complicity with a wayward presidency. We hope that the coming presidential election will soon offer them — and the nation that relies on them — relief.

The United States is supposed to be a place in which laws apply equally to all. And while it never has — and never will — live up to that ideal in full, no modern president before Mr. Trump has so clearly renounced it. The president seems to be doing his best, within the confines of the U.S. constitutional system, to emulate the gangster leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man whose ruinous reign Mr. Trump has always admired. If the country needed any more evidence, Friday confirmed that the greatest threat to the Republic is the president himself.

Jonathan Bernstein goes further still at Bloomberg (“What Could Be More Impeachable Than Clemency for Roger Stone?“):

By commuting the prison sentence of Roger Stone, President Donald Trump has made his contempt for the rule of law plain for all to see. Clemency for a crony convicted of interfering with an investigation of presidential malfeasance is a flagrant abuse of power. President Richard Nixon wasn’t willing to pardon the Watergate criminals who broke into Democratic Party offices in the run-up to the 1972 presidential campaign because he knew how bad it would look; the evidence that Nixon hinted at clemency for his convicted associates was part of the reason he was eventually forced to resign or face certain impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction and removal by the Senate. 

There’s a lot more there but that’s the nub.

The problem with all of this is that the Nixon analogy just doesn’t hold. Nixon was never impeached, although he surely would have been had he not resigned his office. Trump, by contrast, has already been impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate. There is, therefore, no case left for Trump to interfere.

Are clemency and pardons for politically-connected felons an affront to the rule of law and the notion of equality before the law? Absolutely.

They are, alas, rather commonplace and bipartisan.

Most notably, of course, Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon.

George H.W. Bush pardoned Cap Weinberger, Elliot Abrams, and others implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Bill Clinton pardoned Roger Clinton, his brother; Henry Cisneros, his Housing Secretary; Susan McDougal, Marc Rich, and Pincus Green–all former business partners; and several others.

George W. Bush commuted the sentence of “Scooter” Libby, drawing the ire of Vice President Dick Cheney for not issuing a full pardon. Trump later pardoned him.

Barack Obama issued several controversial pardons and commutations but none in which he had a conflict of interest (unless one counts Marine General “Hoss” Cartwright, which I wouldn’t).*

Trump has already, in my judgment, abused his pardon power multiple times before now. It is, however, a plenary one and, while the House can theoretically impeach a President for anything it wants to, it’s hard to argue that it’s a High Crime to commute the sentence of a former associate for lying in a matter that’s already resolved.

Perverse? Unjust? Outrageous?

Sure. But that’s par for the course with this President.

*UPDATE: Jonathan Turley lists plenty of other examples in “Why this Roger Stone commutation is not as controversial as some think.”

Thomas Jefferson pardoned Erick Bollman for violations of the Alien and Sedition Act in the hope that he would testify against rival Aaron Burr for treason. Andrew Jackson stopped the execution of George Wilson in favor of a prison sentence, despite the long record Wilson had as a train robber, after powerful friends intervened with Jackson. Wilson surprised everyone by opting to be hanged anyway. However, Wilson could not hold a candle to Ignazio Lupo, one of the most lethal mob hitmen who was needed back in New York during a mafia war. With the bootlegging business hanging in the balance, Warren Harding, who along with his attorney general, Harry Daugherty, was repeatedly accused of selling pardons, decided to pardon Lupo on the condition that he be a “law abiding” free citizen.

Franklin Roosevelt also pardoned political allies, including Conrad Mann, who was a close associate of Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast. Pendergast made a fortune off illegal alcohol, gambling, and graft, and helped send Harry Truman into office. Truman also misused this power, including pardoning the extremely corrupt George Caldwell, who was a state official who skimmed massive amounts of money off government projects, like a building fund for Louisiana State University.

Richard Nixon was both giver and receiver of controversial pardons. He pardoned Jimmy Hoffa after the Teamsters Union leader had pledged to support his reelection bid. Nixon himself was later pardoned by Gerald Ford, an act many of us view as a mistake. To his credit, Ronald Reagan declined to pardon the Iran Contra affair figures, but his vice president, George Bush, did so after becoming president. Despite his own alleged involvement in that scandal, Bush still pardoned those other Iran Contra figures, such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

Bill Clinton committed some of the worst abuses of this power, including pardons for his brother Roger Clinton and his friend and business partner Susan McDougal. He also pardoned the fugitive financier Marc Rich, who evaded justice by fleeing abroad. Entirely unrepentant, Rich was a major Democratic donor, and Clinton had wiped away his convictions for fraud, tax evasion, racketeering, and illegal dealings with Iran.

Additionally, Turley reminds us,

Unlike many of these cases, there were legitimate questions raised about the Stone case. The biggest issue was that the foreperson of the trial jury was also actually a Democratic activist and an outspoken critic of Trump and his associates who even wrote publicly about the Stone case. Despite multiple opportunities to do so, she never disclosed her prior statements and actions that would have demonstrated such bias. Judge Amy Berman Jackson shrugged off all that, however, and refused to grant Stone a new trial, denying him the most basic protection in our system.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Donald Trump, Law and the Courts, Presidency, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    There’s really nothing to say, the outrage machine is broken 3 1/2 months to election day. 6 months to our national nightmare is over.

    3
  2. Scott F. says:

    Perverse? Unjust? Outrageous?

    Just another Friday in Trumpland.

    Presidential corruption with his party’s complicity normalized.

    9
  3. This is more of Trump governing in his own private interest with no so much as a thought to governing in the public interest.

    13
  4. Argon says:

    And the top story at The American Conservative: “The Woke Movement people make me feel threatened. They’re icky!”, by Rod Dreher.

    12
  5. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I’ve often thought–and probably said–that Trump thinks that he can run the presidency the way he ran his business: as if it were some ramshackle fiefdom where all loyalty was owed to Trump, the feudal overlord. He either can’t separate (or distinguish) the national interest from his own interests, or he doesn’t care.

    5
  6. CSK says:

    Please release me from moderation. My comment, a response to Dean Taylor, was entirely inoffensive.

    3
  7. Argon says:

    But sticking to the topic…
    Given that this is a clear case of granting a clemency for his personal interests, could that be reversed or made null at some future date? I don’t see Trump’s actions as actually legal, given the circumstances. They are limits to what can be set aside by executive fiat.

    1
  8. de stijl says:

    Mafia Don stuff. Shameful.

    We need to rethink and legislate how pardons and commutations work. This is a perversion.

    2
  9. Mr. Prosser says:

    I’m reposting this from this morning’s open forum.

    Kevin Drum has an interesting post on why Stone’s sentence was commuted rather than trump giving him a pardon. Has to do with the 5th Amendment.
    https://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2020/07/why-did-trump-commute-roger-stones-sentence-instead-of-pardoning-him/

    4
  10. steve says:

    The pardon process has always been abused and used to reward political allies, Trump just takes it further.

    Steve

    2
  11. de stijl says:

    I see that “Drain The Swamp” had an asterisk.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    @Mr. Prosser: Saw that last night. Drum does an “if I understand the law” and doesn’t explain. I’d like to see a more thorough discussion of whether Stone can now invoke the Fifth, and how that works.

    3
  13. Scott F. says:

    @de stijl:
    And the Mafia Don is running as the “law and order” candidate, because he’s proud to stand against the anti-statue mob.

    1
  14. Mu Yixiao says:

    For a while now, I’ve been looking at how the left has reacted to Trump–and how his supporters have been digging in their heels. It comes down to “attack vs. explanation”.

    The left has been shouting “TRUMP BAD!” Human reaction to attack is to get defensive–so those being attacked (by proxy) will just strengthen their defense.

    However… every blue-collar worker (from any side of the spectrum) understands “the bad boss”–and almost universally hate him. They understand the manager that only wants ass-kissers. They understand the idiot boss that doesn’t know what he’s talking about–and the lower-downs that have to cover his ass with the employees. They understand the boss that gives jobs to his friends and family–even though they’re idiots. They understand the weakling that refuses to take responsibility and blames everything on everyone else. And they understand the drunk that goes off on rants.

    Stop “attacking” Trump and start describing him as a weak man who’s a bad boss. Get the working-class Republicans to put their support behind someone like Colin Powell. Or… Does anyone know if Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman is a Republican?

    6
  15. mattbernius says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Get the working-class Republicans to put their support behind someone like Colin Powell.

    I can think of at least one thing that colors a lot of working class Republicans views on Powell preventing that rallying effect.

    And that’s before we’re get to the RINO and Obama supporting stuff.

    13
  16. Gustopher says:

    while the House can theoretically impeach a President for anything it wants to, it’s hard to argue that it’s a High Crime to commute the sentence of a former associate for lying in a matter that’s already resolved.

    Stone had his sentence commuted because he didn’t rat out the president. Trump has been dangling clemency to help insure that people don’t cooperate with investigations.

    That’s clear obstruction of justice. Impeachable, prosecutable, deplorable obstruction of justice.

    13
  17. CSK says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    Trump’s been portrayed as a weakling and a bad boss innumerable times over the past five years. His record of screwing contractors is legendary. No matter to his supporters, those very people who should despise him the most. He’s still “the blue collar billionaire” with whom they identify.

    After all, he owns the libtards, and nothing beats that. And none of them ever worked for him, so they have no firsthand experience of his awfulness.

    5
  18. @CSK: I have no idea why that went into moderation.

  19. Gustopher says:

    @de stijl:

    I see that “Drain The Swamp” had an asterisk.

    When you drain a swamp, you remove the water — the nice, clean water — leaving behind pond scum, alligators, etc.

    4
  20. de stijl says:

    @mattbernius:

    WWC and BWC have shitty jobs and predominantly shitty bosses that work for shitty corporations. Both lack an easy avenue to advance. There is a ladder and you are stuck on rung one.

    They live in different places though and perceived geography informs. Their kids often leave that perceived geography explicitly. Go to uni.

    That school might only be a zip code away, but it is away. They crafted a different future for themselves by themselves.

    Rural kids and urban kids are more alike in the leaving than are the moms and dads are in the staying. Those that have the means to leave.

    BWC and WWC adults have more in common than they realize. Perceived geography and skin color prejudice any collaboration. It is almost as if it were designed by a ruling class to divide those they ruled.

    1
  21. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    What goes into moderation seems to be totally arbitrary. Half the time I post a link to a perfectly legit source, it gets held back.

  22. mattbernius says:

    @de stijl:

    BWC and WWC adults have more in common than they realize. Perceived geography and skin color prejudice any collaboration.

    Again, this colorblind reading doesn’t pay enough attention to all the hard work being done to enforce racial barriers. And so long at the most popular “news program” with WWC voters is one that is literally being written by (crypto) white supremacists (not to mention being hosted by a race-baiting ivy league “populist”), then the fact is the race will continue to be a critical dividing line (especially when one party is increasingly becoming a white nationalist party).

    Additionally, it also misses a lot of the critical ways in that there are real and important differences that must be bridged between ethnic groups and in the urban/suburban/rural divide. Simple class/economic based readings of this fail for these reasons (again, this is the biggest flaw in classical Marxist analysis).

    1
  23. CSK says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    Vindman was born in Kiev, so he’s ineligible to be president, if that’s what you mean.

    6
  24. Mister Bluster says:

    @mattbernius:..I can think of at least one thing that colors a lot of working class Republicans views on Powell preventing that rallying effect.

    I saw what you did there…

    2
  25. James Joyner says:

    @Mu Yixiao: @Mister Bluster: @mattbernius: Aside from Powell not longer being a Republican in any meaningful sense and no obvious way to put him on the ticket at this point, he was Chairman if the Joint Chiefs when I was a lieutenant. He’s 83 years old now and would be nearly 88 at the end of his first term.

    5
  26. Scott F. says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    The latest Gallup poll has Trump approval at 91% with self-identified Republicans. Working-class Republicans have their man and they know exactly who he is and how he “leads.”

    They hate Lt. Col. Vindman, because they love Trump. There is no response to Trump that won’t get his supporters all defensive. There’s no point in looking for one.

    5
  27. DeD says:

    @Argon:
    I venture over to TAC occasionally, just to see if anyone has returned to sanity. Alas, things are worse with each visit …

    5
  28. de stijl says:

    @DeD:

    There were sane commenters there last time I went there. Sometimes little voices can change things.

    1
  29. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Now all you need is to find 25 or 3o Republican Senators who will agree with you and act on it. 😉

    1
  30. Raoul says:

    Let’s be clear about what just happened- the pardon itself is a criminal act: obstruction of justice. The president of U.S. is committing crimes in broad daylight. See emptywheel.net.

    3
  31. Jim Brown 32 says:

    At least Roger Stone has all this behind him so he can get back to the joys of watching strange men bang his wife. Its life’s little pleasures that count.

    6
  32. de stijl says:

    @Raoul:

    It’s weird because the Constitution grants the President the right of pardon.

    Which I argue needs to be addressed and the power is way too broad as we saw yesterday. That was a quid pro quo no one has jurisdiction over and not what the Framers intended.

    What Trump did is legal. Very wrong, but legal.

    Would it require a new amendment to limit that power? IANAL

  33. CSK says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    Oh, are he and his wife still advertising for candidates for a threesome? Stone is one creepy-looking dude.

    2
  34. Mu Yixiao says:

    @CSK:

    Vindman was born in Kiev, so he’s ineligible to be president, if that’s what you mean.

    He’s naturalized? I didn’t know that.

    On a side note, I’d be behind an Amendment that allowed any person with 34 years of citizenship to be eligible for the presidency. I’d even support dropping that to 20 years for anyone who served honorably in the armed forces for at least 10 years.

  35. Mu Yixiao says:

    @James Joyner:

    he was Chairman if the Joint Chiefs when I was a lieutenant.

    So? I honestly have no clue why that’s important.

    He’s 83 years old now and would be nearly 88 at the end of his first term.

    I trust an 88-year-old Powell more than I trust anyone who’s stepped into the ring this year–on either side.

    Hell… I’d rather my 88-year-old mother be in the White House than anyone that’s in the ring this year.

  36. CSK says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    Yes. Vindman and his twin Evgeny (Eugene), along with their older bro, were brought to the U.S. by their father when they were three, shortly after their mother died. They grew up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn.

    2
  37. de stijl says:

    @CSK:

    Obvious sleeper cell.

    I miss The Americans. That was well written and acted.

    1
  38. wr says:

    @Mu Yixiao: “I trust an 88-year-old Powell more than I trust anyone who’s stepped into the ring this year–on either side.”

    Yes, because he’d never lie to the American people.

    Oh, except for that time he held up a vial of talcum (or whatever) and claimed it was deadly weapon and therefore a reason to invade Iraq even though he knew it wasn’t true.

    But maybe that’s a plus. Most politicians don’t get to lie us into a war until after they’re elected. He’s already gotten it out of his system!

    4
  39. An Interested Party says:

    I see that “Drain The Swamp” had an asterisk.

    Actually they misspoke…the purpose of this administration is to fill the swamp and although they’ve been abject failures with so much else they have been very successful with this goal…and speaking of Vindman, how low have we sunk as a country when this honorable military man is bullied into retirement because he did the right thing while a dirty motherfucker like Roger Stone gets a commuted sentence when he should be going to jail…

    2
  40. Gustopher says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    At least Roger Stone has all this behind him so he can get back to the joys of watching strange men bang his wife. Its life’s little pleasures that count.

    Kink shaming is uncool.

    What did the kink do to be forever associated with Roger Stone?

    4
  41. de stijl says:

    @wr:

    They bought yellowcake. In Africa!

    (Cradle of civilization. The motherland)

    Don’t drop that shit!

    The entirity of the Black Bush skit is so good. Chapelle Show came and went too fast.

    1
  42. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: Good point, but maybe there are worse things for kink than to be associated with Roger Stone. 😛

  43. Kurtz says:

    @de stijl:

    Mos Def’s cameos in those skits are so good. Rondell’s gum chewing during the racial draft draws a smile every time.

    And that Holla Holla guy they found… Brilliant.

    Chapelle leaving, or at least, one of the reasons he pulled the plug–the realization that his jokes can reinforce the views he is criticizing–seem more important with each year that fades into darkness.

    1
  44. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @de stijl:

    Would it require a new amendment to limit that power?

    Yes. The presidential power of pardon stems from Article II, Section 2 and is plenary. Limiting it in any way would unfortunately require amending the Constitution.

  45. de stijl says:

    @Kurtz:

    Mos Def’s eyewear was phemonenal.

    That is attention to detail.