Former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone departs following his sentencing hearing at the US district court in Washington, the US, February 20 2020. Picture: REUTERS/MARY F CALVERT
Former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone departs following his sentencing hearing at the US district court in Washington, the US, February 20 2020. Picture: REUTERS/MARY F CALVERT

Washington  — Roger Stone, the longtime Republican operative and Donald Trump associate, was sentenced to three years and four months in prison for lying to Congress and tampering with a witness to protect the president.

The sentence is in line with a lower, three-to-four year range recommended by the justice department in a revised filing. It caps a week of political turmoil that followed Trump’s February 11 criticism of the original recommendation that his friend receive a prison term of as many as nine years. The four prosecutors in the case all stepped down after the department said it was withdrawing their proposal and submitting a new, more lenient one.

Stone was not taken into custody, and it’s unclear if he will ever serve any part of his sentence. Trump has hinted on Twitter and in other public comments that he may pardon Stone, whose prosecution he has characterised as part of a conspiracy against him.

“He was not prosecuted, as some have complained, for standing up for the president,” US district judge Amy Berman Jackson said during the hearing in Washington on Thursday. “He was prosecuted for covering up for the president.”

But though she praised the original prosecutors in the case, Jackson said the range of seven-to-nine years they recommended was too long.

As the judge pronounced her sentence, Stone stood emotionless. After she concluded, he turned, huddled with his lawyers, nodding and shaking their hands. “I have nothing to say. Period. Thank you,” Stone said as he left the courtroom, smiling.

In addition to prison time, Jackson also imposed a $20,000 fine on Stone. She told him he could remain free while he files an appeal and she considers his motion for a new trial.

The outcome is sure to be picked apart by partisans looking for any sign that Jackson, whom Trump has targeted on Twitter, either caved to the president or pushed back against him by imposing an even tougher sentence. Stone declined to speak at his sentencing, but his lawyer asked that Stone be given no time for the charges on which he was convicted in November.

“I don’t think this is a victory for Roger Stone, or it reflects that judge Jackson was cowed by the president,” said Jeremy Temkin, a former federal prosecutor. “She gave him a heavy sentence, and one that she obviously feels he deserved. She presided over the case, from the time of the indictment to the sentencing, and she knows it better than anyone. You have to give her more credit for knowing what the case is about rather than just reading the president’s tweets.”

The government’s reversal on its sentencing recommendation prompted Democratic legislators to accuse Trump of using the justice department to do his bidding. It also set up a rare clash between the president and his attorney-general, William Barr, who complained in an ABC News interview that Trump’s comments were harming the public perception of the justice department as impartial.

‘Confusion’ apology

At the sentencing Thursday, justice department lawyer John Crabb apologised to the judge for the “confusion” caused by the withdrawal of the original prosecutors, whom he defended as acting “in good faith”. He said there had been a miscommunication within the department over “what the appropriate filing should be”.

Asking Jackson to impose a tough sentence “without fear, favour or political influence”, Crabb said: “This prosecution is righteous.”

Stone, who is planning to appeal his conviction, has also filed a sealed request for a new trial. Details of the motion aren’t public, but Trump and other Republicans have claimed the jury foreperson was a Democrat biased against Stone. His earlier request for a new trial alleging bias by a different juror was denied by Jackson.

Speculation that Trump will pardon Stone has also swelled since the president issued a slate of high-profile clemencies on Tuesday to several well-connected individuals convicted of white-collar crimes. Since his tweet denouncing the original sentencing recommendation for Stone as a “miscarriage of justice”, Trump has continued to criticise the case, including during the sentencing hearing.

“It should go without saying, but to pardon Stone when his crimes were committed to protect Trump would be a breathtaking act of corruption,” said Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who led the recent impeachment case against the president. He said the Stone’s sentence “justified”.

Stone was the last person charged during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 22-month investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The case against him included evidence that Trump knew about a plan by WikiLeaks to release e-mails damaging to his then-Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, that US intelligence believes were hacked by Russia. Stone lied to Congress to protect the president, prosecutors said.

A federal jury in November found Stone guilty on all seven counts against him. Others in Trump’s circle who have been convicted or pleaded guilty include his 2016 campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; his deputy campaign chair Rick Gates; his first national security adviser, Mike Flynn; and his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Manafort is serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence.

Flynn’s sentencing has been delayed as he seeks to withdraw his guilty plea for lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. If the sentencing proceeds, it could set up another clash between Trump, the justice department and Democrats.

The charges against Stone stemmed from his September 2017 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, which was also probing Russian meddling.

Trump phone call

Stone was accused of withholding from the congressional panel evidence of his conversations with two possible intermediaries with WikiLeaks — Randy Credico, a comedian and talk show host, and the conservative author and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi. Each of the two had communicated with WikiLeaks, the US said, but Corsi was Stone’s real liaison.

Jackson said she factored into Stone’s sentence his “intolerable” social media activity during his trial. Last year she issued two gag orders barring him from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where he had frequently posted comments critical of the Mueller investigation and promoting right-wing conspiracy theories. Stone apologised for one post that included an altered picture of Jackson herself with a pair of crosshairs next to her head.

The US also pursued Stone’s contacts with the Trump campaign. Gates, the 2016 deputy chair, testified for prosecutors that, during the campaign, he heard Stone telling Trump over the phone that WikiLeaks planned future releases of e-mails damaging to Clinton. Trump said in a written response to Mueller that he didn’t recall any such conversations.

Prosecutors summoned Steve Bannon, the head of Trump’s campaign, to tell jurors that he viewed Stone as the campaign’s “access point” to WikiLeaks and its trove of stolen documents. Bannon said Stone bragged of his relationship with WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange.

At a Wednesday hearing in London, lawyers for Assange claimed he was offered a pardon by Trump if he “played ball” over the 2016 e-mails. Assange is fighting extradition to the US over charges relating to Wikileaks’ publication in 2010 and 2011 of state department cables and other classified documents passed to him by Chelsea Manning,

The White House denied the story on Wednesday as “a total lie”.