President Donald Trump on Friday commuted the prison sentence of his longtime friend Roger Stone, who was convicted of crimes that included lying to Congress in part, prosecutors said, to protect the President. The announcement came just days before Stone was set to report to a federal prison in Georgia.
Stone was convicted in November of seven charges – including lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing a congressional committee proceeding – as part of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Among the things he misled Congress about were his communications with Trump campaign officials – communications that prosecutors said Stone hid out of his desire to protect Trump.
Trump’s decision to commute the sentence of his friend and political adviser is the crescendo of a months-long effort to rewrite the history of the Mueller investigation. This has included selective declassification of intelligence materials, a ramped-up counter-investigation into the origins of the Russia probe and attempts to drop the case against Michael Flynn. The President has broad constitutional power to pardon or commute sentences. But Trump is unlike almost any other president in how he’s used the power proactively to save political allies.
“Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency,” said Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary. “There was never any collusion between the Trump Campaign, or the Trump Administration, with Russia.”
She added, “Mr. Stone, like every American, deserves a fair trial and every opportunity to vindicate himself before the courts. The President does not wish to interfere with his efforts to do so. At this time, however, and particularly in light of the egregious facts and circumstances surrounding his unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial, the President has determined to commute his sentence. Roger Stone has already suffered greatly. He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!”
The clock for Stone was ticking. The Justice Department said this week it supported Stone going to prison Tuesday and an appeals court declined to give him another delay on Friday.
Trump’s move spares Stone from having to serve prison time after Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced him in February to 40 months in prison.
Stone’s attorney, Grant Smith, applauded the President Friday for “this act of mercy.”
“Mr. Stone is incredibly honored that President Trump used his awesome and unique power under the Constitution of the United States for this act of mercy. Mr. and Mrs. Stone appreciate all the consideration the President gave to this matter,” Smith said.
A political firestorm
Stone’s criminal case has drawn intense political reactions since the beginning and the decision could set off another round of Trump’s attacks on the Russia investigation, as well as criticism that Stone received the commutation because he’s a friend of the President.
Trump has faced immense pressure from some of his political allies to grant Stone clemency.
Trump’s knowledge of Stone’s efforts to get leaked Democratic documents in 2016 was a major question in the Mueller investigation, one that Democrats on Capitol Hill still want to investigate.
Several of Trump’s advisers have voiced concern in recent months about the possible political repercussions of the President clearing his former adviser. But Stone’s allies have lobbied Trump for months to clear him, telling him Stone was facing devastating legal fees.
Not all the lobbying has been done behind closed doors. Some of Stone’s closest confidantes – including his daughter and friend Michael Caputo, who now works in the administration – have advocated for a pardon on Fox News on Tucker Carlson’s program, which Trump watches religiously.
Stone himself circulated a petition on his website asking for Trump to grant him a full pardon. “It’s time to stop the Deep State from working against our President,” it says. “He stood with you against the hate directed at your campaign, and now he needs your help.”
At times Trump had seemed reluctant to intervene, fuming and bad-mouthing Stone to others. But the President sees his former confidant through the lens of himself, several people close to him say, viewing an attack on Stone as an attack on him.
Stone, 67, was indicted in January 2019 when armed FBI agents arrested him at his Florida home. He had covered up records that would have revealed he sought to reach WikiLeaks in 2016 to help Trump, lied about the effort when he testified to a Republican-led congressional committee, then threatened another congressional witness, according to the charges brought by Mueller and the DC US Attorney’s Office.
At Stone’s trial, prosecutors argued that “truth still matters.” They claimed Stone lied to Congress because “it would look really bad for his longtime associate Donald Trump” if Stone had told the truth.
The jury agreed with prosecutors and found Stone guilty of all seven charges he faced.
Trump was incensed. He weighed in on Twitter, claiming Stone had been treated unfairly. He suggested the judge was biased and Stone deserved a new trial. In the meantime, Attorney General William Barr intervened in Stone’s case. He publicly ridiculed prosecutors’ request – after it had been filed with the judge – that Stone face seven to nine years in prison for his crime.
Barr insisted he did not intervene at Trump’s behest, but because Barr believed the original sentence recommendation was excessive.
But after Justice Department leadership interjected, the two prosecutors who argued for the truth and made the case that Stone committed crimes in part to protect the President, both resigned from the case. The two other prosecutors on the case resigned as well.
Since Stone’s conviction, he’s focused on criticizing the judge who oversaw his trial and one prosecutor, Aaron Zelinsky, who had worked on the Mueller investigation then on Stone’s trial.
Zelinsky testified to Congress in late June he knew of political pressure “from the highest levels” of the Justice Department to cut Stone a break.
But even Barr in recent months called Stone’s prosecution “righteous.” “I was happy that he was convicted,” Barr told ABC News in February.
Stone’s campaign pays off
A gag order that was on Stone’s case kept him essentially silent during his trial but was lifted soon after he was found guilty. In recent weeks, Stone has railed against prosecutors, the judge and the media in persistent attempts to appeal to Trump. He’s publicly appealed for a pardon, claiming he was treated unfairly by the justice system and that coronavirus would be a death sentence if he were to surrender to prison.
Stone pointed out the Jesup, Georgia, prison has 20 inmates who’ve tested positive for coronavirus. Two weeks ago, when Stone was originally set to report, that prison had no confirmed cases.
“The number doubled since yesterday,” Stone wrote on Friday.
The Justice Department said on Friday it believed Stone should have had to go to prison on Tuesday, following a judge’s order.
“Your client has received at least as much if not more than the full and fair consideration, which he is due under the circumstances,” prosecutor JP Cooney wrote to Stone’s lawyer on June 22.
Stone had been bearish that the appeals court would allow for another delay. On Instagram, he wrote that his request for a delay is a “Hail Mary appeal” that the appeals court “may or may not grant.”
“I want the President to know that I have exhausted all my legal remedies and that only an act of clemency will provide justice in my case and save my life!” Stone wrote late Monday.
40 years of friendship
The friendship between Trump and Stone stretches back roughly 40 years, albeit with some rocky periods along the way. They were first introduced in the 1970s through a man they both admired: Roy Cohn, the lawyer who served as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s counsel during his communism investigation and who was later in life disbarred for unethical conduct.
“Roy thought Roger was a very tough guy. Roy knew some very tough guys, I will tell you that. But Roy always felt that Roger was not only tough, but a smart guy and very political,” Trump said in the 2017 Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone.”
In the years that followed, Stone befriended the Trump family, attended two of Trump’s three weddings, went to the funerals for both of Trump’s parents and spent years agitating for his friend to run for president, Stone said in interviews.
“I was like a jockey looking for a horse. You can’t win the race if you don’t have a horse. And he is a prime piece of political horse flesh, in my view,” Stone said in the Netflix documentary about one of his efforts in the late 1980s to convince Trump to run for president.
In the same documentary, Trump confirmed that Stone had pressed him over and over again to make a bid for the Oval Office.
“Roger always wanted me to run for president. And over the years, every time a presidential race came up, he always wanted me to run,” Trump said. “And I just didn’t have interest at that time. And nor was the country in trouble like it is today.”
There were periods where the two men barely spoke. In a 2008 interview in The New Yorker, Trump said, “Roger is a stone-cold loser. … He always tries taking credit for things he never did.”
But they always reconciled.
The 2016 campaign proved to be Trump’s big moment. And Stone was at his side, at least at the beginning.
Trump announced his presidential bid in June 2015, with Stone serving as a senior adviser. Just two months later, Stone was out. Trump said he fired Stone. Stone said he quit.
Stone remained a staunch supporter of Trump’s campaign anyway. He did television appearances cheerleading Trump, called then-candidate Trump to give him advice and made recommendations when he believed the campaign was in crisis.
Ahead of the Republican convention, some of Trump’s allies worried he could lose the GOP nomination in a delegate fight. Stone and other Trump allies convinced Trump to bring Paul Manafort into the campaign to manage the convention.
While Trump won the nomination, Manafort ended up being convicted of financial and foreign lobbying crimes as a result of Mueller’s investigation and is currently serving out his prison sentence.
Around the same time, the Trump campaign was eager to know what WikiLeaks had coming. At Stone’s trial, former Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates testified that he was with Trump when Trump received a call from Stone about the planned release of hacked Democratic emails.
“After Mr. Trump got off the phone with Mr. Stone, what did Mr. Trump say?” the prosecutor asked Gates.
“He indicated more information would be coming,” Gates responded.
In the following months, Stone bragged publicly about being in touch with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and appeared to predict that new document dumps would be coming.
The Mueller report also raised the possibility that Trump had lied to investigators in sworn answers about his communications with Stone regarding WikiLeaks.
Stone has long embraced no-holds-barred politicking and sports a tattoo of former President Richard Nixon – who also received clemency from a president – on his back, as a tribute to his idol. Over his career, Stone earned a reputation as a dirty trickster and did little to try to water down the image.
“Roger has a really rough reputation. They talk about dirty trickster and lots of other things,” Trump said in the documentary about Stone. “But I’ve known him for a long time and he’s actually a quality guy.”
This story has been updated with additional developments on Friday night.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct a reference to the type of clemency Trump gave Stone.
CNN’s John Couwels, Shimon Prokupecz and Marshall Cohen contributed to this story.