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Trump denies political interference in Stone case

President Trump on Wednesday denied that his tweets represented political interference in the Justice Department’s criminal case against his longtime associate Roger Stone.

“Not at all. He was treated very badly. Nine years recommended by four people that, perhaps they were Mueller people, I don’t know who they were, prosecutors,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, referring to former special counsel Robert Mueller. “I don’t know what happened, they all hit the road pretty quickly.”

Trump then thanked the Department of Justice (DOJ) for lessening the sentencing recommendation for Stone, a decision that sparked criticism because it came after the president publicly objected to the length of Stone’s recommended sentence on Twitter.

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“I want to thank the Justice Department for seeing this horrible thing,” Trump said, insisting that he did not discuss the matter with DOJ. “They saw the horribleness of a nine-year sentence.”

DOJ leaders on Tuesday called for Stone to receive “far less” than the seven to nine year sentence recommended by career prosecutors a day earlier, saying it did not “accurately reflect the Department of Justice’s position.”

The move triggered immediate scrutiny and concerns about the politicization of the Justice Department, given Trump’s public objection. DOJ has said that the decision to reduce the recommendation was made before Trump’s tweet early Tuesday morning.

Further spurring questions about the developments, four of the prosecutors working Stone’s case abruptly resigned on Tuesday. Two of them worked on Mueller’s investigation, which Stone was charged in connection with last January.

Trump’s public comments on the Stone case have outraged Democrats, and generated pushback from some Republican senators who said that he should not weigh in on pending sentences. 

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“I don’t like this chain of events where you have a … proceeding, a sentencing, a recommended sentence, the president weighs in and all of the sudden Justice comes back, says ‘change the deal.’ I think most people would look at that and say ‘hmm, that just doesn’t look right.’ And I think they’re right,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters Wednesday.

Despite criticism, the president continued to blast prosecutors’ initial recommendation for Stone’s prison term when questioned during Wednesday’s Oval Office meeting with Ecuador’s President Lenín Moreno, saying it had been grossly overstated.  

“You have murderers and drug addicts that don’t get nine years,” Trump told reporters. “Nine years for doing something that no one can even define what he did.” 

Stone was convicted by a jury in November on seven counts, including lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing a proceeding. He was one of six Trump campaign associates charged in connection with Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference.

Trump told reporters that he didn’t want to say yet whether he was considering a pardon for Stone, a 67-year-old Republican operative and longtime informal adviser, but insisted associates of his campaign who were investigated by Mueller were treated unfairly.

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“I don’t want to say that yet, but I’ll tell you what, people were hurt viciously and badly by these corrupt people,” Trump said. The president later said that the prosecutors who made the initial sentencing recommendation for Stone “ought to go back to school and learn.”

There has long been speculation that Trump, who regularly rails against Mueller’s now-shuttered Russia investigation as a “witch hunt,” might seek to offer pardons to associates charged in the course of the probe, including Stone and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.  

Earlier on Wednesday, Trump offered “congratulations” to Attorney General William Barr for “taking charge” of Stone’s case in a tweet, appearing to suggest the top Justice Department official had gotten personally involved in the case.

Barr has not commented publicly on the developments, but House Democrats announced Wednesday that he is scheduled to testify before the Judiciary Committee early next month.

“In the interest of transparency, we wish to be candid about one set of concerns we plan to address at the hearing,” lawmakers wrote to Barr. “Since President Trump took office, we have repeatedly warned you and your predecessors that the misuse of our criminal justice system for political purposes is both dangerous to our democracy and unacceptable to the House Judiciary Committee.”

 

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