And it’s all become the worst kept secret in Washington: Trump won’t let Roger Stone go to prison.
“It’s not a question of if,” said a former senior administration official who remains in contact with Trump and his senior advisers. “It’s when.”
After the sentencing on Thursday, Trump walked right up to the line as he laid out his thinking on a potential pardon for Stone. He argued with little evidence that Stone’s jury was “tainted” with anti-Trump bias and lavishly praised Stone’s family.
“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.”
Trump aides in the White House and circling around his 2020 reelection campaign say the president is just being cautious and heeding advice to at least wait to move on Stone until after the court process plays out a little bit more. And among people close to Stone, there’s high confidence that the president will remember the 35-plus year relationship the two men share and ultimately spare him from going to prison.
“You can count on the usual suspects who competed with Roger Stone to have strong opinions,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump 2016 campaign aide who is spearheading the effort to secure a Stone pardon.
“In the end the only opinion that matters is the president of the United States,” he added. “We feel President Donald Trump understands exactly what has happened here and will show mercy to his old aide Roger Stone.”
Stone faced a maximum 50-year prison sentence stemming from his November conviction on seven felony counts, including lying to Congress and stymying House and FBI investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. But ultimately, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson handed down a 40-month sentence.
Still, a fierce debate over the length of Stone’s sentence has become the flashpoint in a brewing war over judicial independence and how much Attorney General Bill Barr and the president should meddle in the prosecution of high-profile political cases.
Barr unsettled the legal world last week when he suddenly intervened to overrule career prosecutors who had recommended that Stone should be sent to prison for seven to nine years, in accordance with federal sentencing guidelines. The move came after Trump had already complained about the sentence recommendation, raising concerns the attorney general was doing Trump’s bidding. Despite Barr’s insistence that he made the decision independently, the four prosecutors assigned to Stone’s case resigned in protest.
Barr then went on television to implore the president to stop his public commentary about ongoing cases, saying it was making his job “impossible.” But the president has only barreled forward, defending his right to comment on any legal case and continuing to stump for Stone to get an entirely new trial.
Amid this backdrop, Stone received his sentence on Thursday — but he wasn’t immediately sent into custody. Judge Jackson earlier this week promised that Stone won’t be sent to prison right away after he learns his punishment. Instead, Stone’s start date in a federal penitentiary will be deferred until Jackson, an appointee of President Barack Obama, resolves a separate request that Stone has made for a new trial.
The move has bought Trump a little more time before he needs to make any clemency moves. And the delay has heartened Stone allies who fret that top White House aides including Jared Kushner and Pat Cipollone, Barr, or even outside heavy hitters like Donald Trump Jr. and Corey Lewandowski would get into Trump’s ear and urge him to stay away from a move to wipe Stone’s record clean.
They are also banking on the decades-long history between the president and his longtime GOP confidant. Stone and Trump have a history unlike anyone else around the president. They’ve known each other since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 White House campaign and maintained a rapport that includes Stone counseling Trump during four potential presidential runs and Trump hiring Stone as a lobbyist to represent his gambling, airline and hotel businesses.
In his most recent book, Stone boasted that he knew about Trump’s 2016 plans more than two years before the formal campaign announcement. And even after Trump and Stone officially parted ways not long after the campaign launch, the two continued speaking, with Stone serving as the campaign’s unofficial conduit to WikiLeaks, the controversial Julian Assange-led outfit that published scores of stolen emails embarrassing to Hillary Clinton during key moments of the presidential race.
“There’s very few people who know Donald Trump before the presidency better than Roger Stone,” said Morgan Pehme, the co-director of the Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone.” “And as entangled as Roger Stone is in his life, the president has a vested interest in making sure they are on the most amicable terms.”
Indeed, Trump has maintained interest in Stone’s legal situation from the get go, and the president’s public comments at several key moments along the way have drawn scrutiny from legal experts who warned they could be construed as presidential interference. In December 2018, for example, Trump faced questions that he was witness tampering after he lauded Stone’s statement pledging not to testify against Trump.
“Nice to know that some people still have ‘guts!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
Nearly two months later, when special counsel Robert Mueller unveiled the Stone indictment, Trump complained about the manner of Stone’s arrest and asked why a number of top law enforcement officials didn’t face similar legal scrutiny.
The president has kept up a similar line of public criticism as the Stone case wound its way through court. Trump tweeted about the jury verdict just minutes after it came down. Then, of course, there was the kerfuffle over the prison sentence recommendation. Trump also recently attacked a woman who has identified herself as the Stone jury foreperson over social media posts critical of his presidency.
While Barr did intervene to lower Stone’s prison sentence recommendation, he has also endorsed the DOJ’s work going after Stone.
“I thought that was a righteous prosecution. And I was happy that he was convicted,” Barr said.
How Barr would come down on a Stone pardon remains unclear. He’s a staunch defender of executive power and during his first stint as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush advocated for clemency on behalf of several Reagan-era officials caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal. He ultimately pushed for more pardons than the one Bush handed out to former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger.
“There were some people arguing just for Weinberger, and I said, ‘No, in for a penny, in for a pound,” Barr said in an oral history to the University of Virginia.
As for Stone’s critics in Trump world — and he has many — most have been hesitant to get in the way of a possible presidential pardon.
Lewandowski famously sparred with Stone during the 2016 campaign and celebrated his conviction in November. But in a Newsmax interview last week, Lewandowski appeared to be using some of the same talking points that others around the president have deployed to bash a possible lengthy prison term.
“As much as I’m not a fan of Roger Stone, this notion that he was going to receive a recommendation of seven to nine years in jail for lying to Congress or obstruction is completely absurd,” Lewandowski said.
Asked about Stone’s pardon prospects, Lewandowski replied, “I think that’s for the president to decide.”
Stone allies are keeping tabs on others around Trump, including the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr. They were dejected, for example, to hear Trump Jr. in a Sirius XM interview last week seem to downplay Stone’s involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign.
“Roger Stone was one of those guys who was trying desperately to be relevant, so he was in a dark room throwing darts and he actually hit something,” Trump Jr. said.
But they also quickly took comfort in comments Trump Jr. made on Saturday during an appearance on Fox News that argued Stone hasn’t been treated the same as several former top law enforcement officials who the president and allies claim long ago set out to frame the president.
“The double standard is what’s sickening, and I think that’s what’s so frustrating to us,” Trump Jr. said. “Like, I don’t care if we play hardball or if we play t-ball. But we’ve got to be playing the same game, and we’re not.”
All of the clamor surrounding a Stone pardon has followed a similar pattern as some of the other high-profile cases where celebrities or other people close to the president work channels outside the traditional DOJ clemency process to secure his attention.
Kim Kardashian West, for example, encouraged Trump to commute the sentence of a grandmother serving life without parole for a nonviolent drug crime — a move that Trump’s campaign trumpeted earlier this month in a high-priced Super Bowl commercial.
On Tuesday, Trump’s White House acknowledged that former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo, Jr., was pardoned for pleading guilty to fraud in part because of the advocacy of NFL greats Jim Brown, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.
For Stone, Fox host Tucker Carlson has helped carry the torch by dedicating significant air time to the subject.
Then there’s Caputo, another longtime Trump associate who worked on the 2016 campaign and who visited the president at the White House last April just days after the conclusion of the Mueller probe. Caputo declined to say what kind of direct outreach he’s had with Trump in recent weeks about a pardon except to say that they’re trying to hold back on applying maximum pressure until Stone must report to prison.
“As long as Roger Stone is free, we’re not going to rush the process,” said Caputo. “It’s sacrosanct.”
Trump’s interest in helping out Stone is rooted in his belief that anyone tied up in the Mueller probe has been mistreated.
“Somebody has to stick up for the people,” the president said Tuesday.
Trump has faced questions over whether he’ll also dole out a pardon to Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser who has been fighting the Justice Department over his attempts to withdraw his guilty plea for lying to the FBI.
“Look at him,” Trump said of Flynn. “I mean, his life has been destroyed.”
But Flynn might not even need Trump’s clemency to stay out of prison. The retired Army general faces a five-year maximum prison sentence for his false-statements felony charge, but prosecutors have urged the judge handling the case to consider a sentence between no jail time and six months behind bars.
“With Flynn, who knows? This guy may not end up needing a pardon,” said the former senior administration official.
Then there’s Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman who has about six years left on a prison sentence tied to a series of lobbying, financial fraud and witness-tampering crimes. Trump has said he feels “very badly” for Manafort, and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has stayed in contact with the imprisoned ex-lobbyist.
Still, the former senior administration official said, “I don’t think you’re going to find a ton of people who are wanting to associate themselves with Paul Manafort.
Trump critics say they’re bracing for the inevitable when it comes to Stone — though they differ on when it might happen.
Annemarie McAvoy, a defense attorney and media consultant who early on in the Mueller probe represented former Trump campaign deputy Rick Gates, predicted Stone will likely have to wait beyond November.
“I never say never, but would be extremely surprised if the president were to pardon Roger Stone before the election,” she said. “Doing so right now, given the recent comments from Bill Barr, would make the situation even more volatile.”
During a CNN appearance last week, former FBI general counsel James Baker said Trump shouldn’t even wait for Jackson’s sentencing decision.
“I think everybody knows the president is going to pardon Roger Stone,” he said. “Just do it. Like, just do it now. Don’t wait until the day after the election when you’re probably going to do it.”