Government ethics watchdogs and congressional Democrats were among those outraged late Friday after President Donald Trump announced the commutation of his longtime associate Roger Stone's 40-month prison sentence, in what Democratic leaders called a "transparently corrupt" move.
Trump announced Stone would not be reporting to prison four days before the Republican operative was set to begin his sentence, which was far shorter than the seven to nine years originally recommended by prosecutors.
Stone was sentenced in February after being convicted of seven felony counts, including lying to Congress under oath, withholding documents pertaining to the investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign's communications with Russia, and threatening another witness if he cooperated with the probe.
"By this action, President Trump abused the powers of his office in an apparent effort to reward Roger Stone for his refusal to cooperate with investigators examining the president's own conduct. No other president has exercised the clemency power for such a patently personal and self-serving purpose."
—Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.)
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who led House Democrats in impeachment hearings against Trump over his alleged attempt to pressure Ukraine to aid him ahead of the 2020 election, said the commutation proves that to the president, "there are two systems of justice in America: one for his criminal friends, and one for everyone else."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chair the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees, respectively, said they would immediately seek information from the White House counsel on the circumstances surrounding the commutation and demanded the Department of Justice release materials related to Stone's communications with Trump.
"The facts are clear: Roger Stone lied to investigators. He threatened to harm a witness to his crimes. A jury of our fellow Americans found him guilty of obstruction of justice," said Nadler and Maloney in a joint statement. "President Trump's unprecedented decision to commute the sentence of Roger Stone, an individual that could directly implicate him in criminal misconduct, undermines the rule of law. By this action, President Trump abused the powers of his office in an apparent effort to reward Roger Stone for his refusal to cooperate with investigators examining the president's own conduct. No other president has exercised the clemency power for such a patently personal and self-serving purpose."
Trump tweeted about the commutation on Saturday morning, claiming Democrats including former President Barack Obama and presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden are "criminals," rather than Stone.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) responded with a reminder that the commutation of Stone's sentence did not absolve him of his crime.
Who wants to tell him that a commutation does not imply innocence and Roger Stone is still a convicted felon? https://t.co/7R3pcoPFbW
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) July 11, 2020
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"This is what despots do: wield the law like a weapon to attack political opponents and protect loyal cronies," tweeted Washington Post columnist Brian Klaas. "It's a disgraceful, dark day for American democracy."
This is a complete lie. Roger Stone committed a series of well-documented crimes that are not seriously contested. https://t.co/Ja5Ty0VQyE
— Brian Klaas (@brianklaas) July 11, 2020
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of CREW, further pointed out that the president has repeatedly called for "law and order" during the ongoing racial justice uprising taking place across the country.
"This is one more example of President Trump at his most corrupt and another attack on our democracy," Bookbinder said. "The president whose administration had peaceful protesters for racial justice pepper sprayed in the name of 'law and order' has repeatedly stepped in to make sure his cronies don't see the consequences of their actions. The message is clear: In Trump's America, justice doesn’t apply to rich white men who help the president."
Progressive advocacy group Stand Up America also contrasted Stone's freedom from his upcoming sentence with the long sentences and wrongful convictions faced by "far too many" black Americans.
"The commutation of Stone's prison sentence is an attack on the rule of law and an escalation of Trump's unprecedented corruption," said Sean Eldridge, Stand Up America president. "It's especially egregious in light of the systemic racism that plagues our broken criminal justice system, sending the message that white, rich, and well-connected men can escape the consequences of their crimes."
In commuting Stone's sentence, the president went against the recommendation of his own Justice Department. Attorney General William Barr reportedly warned this week that "mutiny" at the DOJ would result if the sentence was lifted.
Barr angered former DOJ employees when he publicly overruled prosecutors' recommendation of a seven to nine year sentence for Stone, causing more than 2,000 of them to sign a letter demanding the attorney general's resignation.
Earlier this week, CREW warned against a presidential pardon for Stone, saying that leaving him unaccountable for his crimes "months after Barr's DOJ intervened to cut his sentence would make a mockery of 'equal justice under law.'"