President Donald Trump threw the full weight of his office behind Roger Stone, issuing an 11th-hour commutation of his sentence days before his longtime associate and political adviser was set to report to federal prison to begin a 40-month term.
Stone's trial yielded testimony which contradicted Trump's written responses to former special counsel Robert Mueller.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany released a rambling statement Friday evening in which the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. decried the "collusion delusion," Hillary Clinton and CNN. It blamed Stone's conviction, which was administered by a jury of his peers, on "out-of-control Mueller prosecutors" who were simply "desperate" to make headlines.
"These charges were the product of recklessness borne of frustration and malice," the statement said. "This is why the out-of-control Mueller prosecutors, desperate for splashy headlines to compensate for a failed investigation, set their sights on Mr. Stone."
The statement alleged that Stone's conviction on seven felony counts for obstructing a congressional inquiry into the president was tainted by an "activist juror" who had once "vividly and openly attacked" the president on Twitter, as well as that the evidence was derived from "process based charges" in an "absolutely baseless investigation" (i.e., "the witch hunts" of "the Russia Hoax," both terms deployed by McEnany in the missive).
"Roger Stone has already suffered greatly," the official White House statement concluded. "He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!"
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Tobin called the decision "the most corrupt and cronyistic move in history." Attorney General William Barr reportedly warned Trump not to commute Stone, saying it might incite "mutiny" among federal prosecutors.
Stone was served the final indictment in Mueller's probe of Russia interference in the 2016 election. The government charged Stone with lying to the House Intelligence Committee about his contacts with WikiLeaks during the campaign, as well as intimidating a witness and hiding evidence. At the time, prosecutors said Stone had lied to Congress because the truth would have "looked terrible" for Trump and his campaign.
Multiple former Trump advisers, including former White House strategist and campaign chief Steve Bannon and former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, testified against Stone at the trial. Both claimed that Stone had said he was in contact with WikiLeaks and predicted dumps of emails stolen from Democrats.
Gates testified that moments after a phone call with Stone, then-candidate Trump announced "more information" would be coming from WikiLeaks in July of 2016, a bombshell revelation which contradicted Trump's sworn testimony to Mueller.
Upon his conviction, Stone lobbied the administration for reprieve. The effort bore fruit in January, when Attorney General William Barr inserted himself into the sentencing process in an unprecedented move. In June, the former lead attorney for the government testified that the Department of Justice, including himself personally, had been under political pressure to cut Stone "a break."
"What I heard — repeatedly — was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the president," Aaron Zelinsky, the prosecutor, said in prepared testimony submitted to the House Judiciary Committee.
"I was also told that the acting U.S. attorney was giving Stone such unprecedentedly favorable treatment because he was 'afraid of the president,'" he added.
After the White House announced the commutation, Grant Smith, a lawyer for Stone, said in a statement: "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."
Stone had recently put in his own request to delay reporting for his sentence, citing an unspecified health problem which made him particularly susceptible to COVID-19.
In May, Barr asked the government to dismiss its own criminal case against Trump's former national security adviser Mike Flynn, who had pleaded guilty twice to lying to the FBI. Last month, Trump fired U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, who had been investigating former Lifelock spokesman Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney and "fixer" whose activities in Ukraine led directly to his own client's impeachment.
Though Trump has issued pardons and commutations to a number of allies, Stone is the first person directly connected to the 2016 campaign to benefit from one. Speculation that the president would extend the same grace to other convicted campaign staff felons, such as Flynn and Paul Manafort, has not borne out.