Stone, who passed on a chance to address the courtroom, stood silently with his attorneys for nearly 45 minutes while the judge explained the reasoning behind her sentence. The punishment, she said, grew in large part from the severity of his attempts to stymie the Russia probe, violations of a gag order limiting his speech during the pre-trial proceedings and for making a threat to the judge through social media.
“He was not prosecuted, as some have complained, for standing up for the president,” Jackson added in her closing remarks. “He was prosecuted for covering up for the president.”
Jackson’s sentence for Stone — among the most severe to-date in a case originating from special counsel Robert Mueller — came a week after his potential punishment triggered a furor at the Justice Department.
Stone’s case has become a flashpoint for broader concerns about political meddling in high-profile legal cases. Trump has been using his Twitter bully pulpit to repeatedly harangue the Justice Department over its handling of the case, sparking concerns that the president influenced Attorney General Bill Barr’s decision to overrule his own prosecutors and request a lower sentence for Stone — a charge Barr denies. The situation has left many in the legal world wondering whether Trump’s refusal to scale back his public punditry, despite Barr’s own public pleas, could lead the attorney general to resign.
Trump didn’t relent after the sentencing, arguing that Stone’s jury was “tainted” with anti-Trump bias due to the political affiliation of some jurors. Trump also laid out, for the first time, his thinking on a potential pardon for Stone.
“I want to see it play out to its fullest, because Roger has a very good chance of exoneration,” he said, a likely reference to Stone’s recent petition for a new trial and a possible appeal.
“But we will watch the process and watch it very closely,” he added during a graduation speech for former prisoners. “And at some point I will make a determination. But Roger Stone and everybody has to be treated fairly.”
Jackson, an appointee of President Barack Obama, jumped at the chance to address the simmering controversies when one of the newly assigned Stone prosecutors, John Crabb, about the issue as he delivered the government’s final comments.
“I want to apologize to the court for the confusion the government caused with respect to this sentencing and the difficulties surrounding that,” Crabb said.
During his brief statement to the court, the prosecutor appeared to go out of his way to push back against Trump’s attacks. Crabb said the prosecutors who filed the original recommendation that Stone go to prison for between seven and nine years did not defy their superiors or act inappropriately.
“I want to make clear to the court that this confusion was not caused by the original trial team,” he said, adding that the sentencing proposal was filed by those prosecutors “in good faith.” Under questioning by Jackson, Crabb confirmed that the original recommendation was approved by a former aide to Barr who was recently installed as U.S. Attorney in Washington, Tim Shea.
Crabb said the confusion stemmed from “miscommunication” between Barr and Shea, but Crabb declined to offer much detail. When the judge asked whether Crabb wrote the revised recommendation, he demurred again, saying that — despite his earlier comments — he was not permitted to discuss “internal deliberations.”
While Trump has denounced the decision to prosecute Stone, Crabb took a contrary position, echoing comments Barr made in an interview last week, where he called the prosecution of Stone “righteous.”
“This is a righteous prosecution and the offenses of conviction are serious,” Crabb said.
It wasn’t the first time last week’s internal DOJ fireworks came up, either.
Jackson first alluded to the recent dramatic events in the case just minutes into the hearing. She touched on Barr’s unusual intervention to reverse the initial sentencing recommendation, which led the four trial prosecutors to withdraw from the case and one of them to quit the department altogether.
Without mentioning any names, the judge suggested that some critics of the original recommendation seemed unusually moved by Stone’s plight, even though the guidelines that DOJ followed — first adopted in the 1980s to rein in judges’ discretion — sometimes produce extraordinarily long sentences.
“For those of you new to this and who woke up last week and became persuaded that the guidelines are harsh…I can assure you that defense attorneys and many judges have been making that point for a long time, but we don’t usually succeed in getting the government to agree,” Jackson scoffed.
Later, Jackson noted that the government’s decision to argue that Stone should get less prison time than federal sentencing guidelines recommend was a definite deviation from standard practices adopted by the Trump administration.
“It’s not just a question of whether it was good faith, but it was fully consistent with current DOJ policy,” she said, referring to the initial recommendation. “The current policy of this Department of Justice is to charge and prosecute the most serious offense available in order to get the highest level guideline.”
Crabb acknowledged that is “generally” DOJ’s current policy and that line prosecutors are not permitted to deviate from it without approval from higher-ups.
And while Trump has suggested the judge has been cruel towards his allies like former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Crabb came to the judge’s defense Thursday, saying “the government has the utmost confidence” in her, and praising her “thoughtful analysis and fair sentences” in related cases.
Jackson also declared to the courtroom that Stone’s crimes were not without impact. She said that his obstruction stymied the GOP-led House Intelligence Committee’s probe into Russian election interference, which concluded in a highly-criticized April 2018 report that there was no evidence of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
“It led to an inaccurate, incorrect, incomplete report,” Jackson said.
The judge also said that when making her decision, she took into account Stone’s social media attacks on the court during his prosecution that raised security concerns at the courthouse.
“This is intolerable to the administration of justice and the court cannot sit idly by, shrug its shoulders and say, ‘Oh, that’s just Roger being Roger,’” Jackson said.
Stone, 67, has sought to avoid any prison time. During Thursday’s hearings, his defense argued he had no criminal record and should get a reprieve because he’s a family man about to become a great-grandfather.
“Consider the full scope of the person who stands before you in sentencing,” said Seth Ginsberg, a new defense lawyer brought on for sentencing.
“Mr. Stone has many admirable qualities,” Ginsberg added, urging Jackson to look beyond the “larger than life political persona” Stone plays on TV. He noted Stone’s charity work to help veterans, animal welfare and NFL players suffering from traumatic brain injuries.
Despite Stone’s typical passion for or the spotlight, Ginsberg said the high-profile trial and its attendant publicity had taken a toll on the defendant and his family.
“The process really, to some extent, has already been the punishment,” Ginsberg insisted.
But Jackson in her closing statement before reading her sentence unloaded on Stone’s defense team for acting so dismissively about the charges during the November trial.
“The truth still exists,” she said. “The truth still matters.”
Stone won’t have to start serving his sentence right away. He’s seeking a new trial on the grounds that one of the jurors had a preconceived bias — a decision that Jackson is expected to address in the coming weeks.
Even with the delay, Stone’s fate appears like it now rests with Trump saving an ally with whom he shares a four-decade relationship.
Trump has been arguing in recent weeks that Stone’s crimes were harmless.
“Nobody even knows what he did,” the president said, while inaccurately alleging that the prosecution was based on “a tweet.”
Trump has repeatedly showed willingness to exercise his clemency power, by issuing a string of 11 pardons and commutations to other convicted criminals, including high-profile figures like the former Democratic governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, and junk-bond king Michael Milken. Those in Trump’s orbit think Stone will get the same treatment.
“It’s not a question of if,” a former senior administration official who remains in close touch with the president and senior aides said when asked about the prospect of a Stone pardon. “It’s when.”
By law, Stone faced a maximum possible term of 50 years in prison: five years on each of the false-statement counts, five years for obstruction of Congress and as much as 20 years for witness tampering.
However, judges typically sentence in accordance with complex federal sentencing guidelines that tend to call for punishment far less than the maximum for first-time offenders and in many white-collar cases.
The severity of the initial sentencing recommendation stemmed largely from prosecutors’ treatment of several statements by Stone as genuine threats of violence or, at a minimum, having the potential to encourage others to act out. At issue were barbs Stone unleashed at a longtime associate, Randy Credico, as he was mulling how to respond to congressional and Justice Department investigators probing Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Prepare to die cocksucker,” Stone wrote to Credico in one colorful message. Another seemed to threaten Credico’s beloved therapy animal, promising to “take that dog away from you.”
Credico warned Stone at the time that he had “crossed a red line” by threatening the dog, but at Stone’s trial Credico said he considered Stone a “dog person” and did not think Stone was serious. Credico also sent Jackson a letter last month urging her not to send Stone to jail. The comedian and talk show host said he did not think Stone posed a “direct physical threat,” although Credico did say at the trial that he feared that Stone’s outlandish invective could prompt others to violence.
The prosecutors who handled Stone’s case at trial said the comments were serious enough to trigger an enhancement that added about four to five years to Stone’s recommended sentence. However, the revised proposal Barr submitted said that while the add-on for threats of violence was “perhaps technically applicable,” it would result in a sentence that was “unduly high,” given the facts of Stone’s case.
The sentence for Stone — “I have nothing to say,” Stone told reporters when leaving the courtroom — is one of the most serious handed out in a case connected to the Mueller probe.
Manafort got seven-and-a-half years total after a jury convicted him of financial fraud and then he later pleaded guilty to separate charges related to witness tampering and his lobbying work. Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign deputy chairman, is serving 45 days of jail over a series of weekends after pleading guilty to a similar suite of crimes as Manafort. Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen is also serving a three-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to tax fraud and false-statement charges.