WASHINGTON - A federal judge on Thursday sentenced Roger Stone, a veteran Republican operative and President Donald Trump's longtime confidant, to more than three years in prison for obstructing a congressional inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The sentence was about half as long as federal prosecutors had initially recommended before Attorney General William Barr overturned the recommendation, setting off a firestorm over political meddling in the justice system.
In remarks at a Las Vegas event after the sentencing, Trump criticized the Stone prosecution as unfair, but he said he would allow the legal process to play itself out rather than pardon his friend. Stone and his lawyers are seeking a new trial in the case.
"I think that's the best thing to do because I'd love to see Roger exonerated," Trump said. "And I'd love to see it happen because I personally think he was treated very unfairly."
Trump used his formidable powers on Tuesday to pardon or commute the sentences of 11 people, including former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, convicted junk bond huckster Michael Milken and former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik. Critics say a presidential pardon could be awaiting Stone down the road if he is sent to prison.
Before handing down the sentence of 40 months, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the United States District Court of Washington criticized the administration for its handling of the case, calling Barr's intervention "unprecedented" and Trump's repeated public comments about the Stone case "entirely inappropriate." Jackson, however, said she would not be influenced by the president's comments or those of Trump critics who have demanded a steep sentence for Stone.
"Roger Stone will not be sentenced for who his friends are or who his enemies are," she said.
A self-described "dirty trickster" with a taste for loud suits and colorful language, Stone, 67, has known Trump since the late 1970s, and later encouraged Trump to make his first presidential bid in the late 1980s. Stone briefly served as an adviser to Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
The Republican consultant was convicted last November of seven charges in connection with his efforts during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign to obtain stolen emails of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton from the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. A jury found Stone lied about those efforts to congressional investigators in 2017 and then intimidated a witness.
Trump has repeatedly said that Stone has been "treated unfairly" by the justice system, portraying his friend as a victim of a politically motivated investigation into Russian election meddling. But Jackson said Congress had a legitimate reason to investigate allegations that Russia coordinated with the Trump campaign to tip the outcome of the 2016 election.
"There was nothing unfair, phony or disgraceful about the investigation or the prosecution," Jackson said. "Witnesses do not get to decide for themselves whether Congress is entitled to the facts."
Jackson said she found the prosecutors' original recommendation for seven to nine years as too high. But she dismissed defense lawyers' call for no jail time, saying Stone deserved to be punished for his crimes.
"If it goes unpunished ... everyone loses," Jackson said.
Stone will begin his sentence two weeks after his request for a new trial has run its course, Jackson said. Stone's lawyers say he deserves a retrial because one of the jurors who convicted him — the jury forewoman who had run unsuccessfully for an office as a Democrat — was biased against Trump. Stone declined to address the court before his sentencing.
Barr's highly unusual intervention in the case on the heels of Trump's complaints about the length of the sentencing recommendation prompted four prosecutors to withdraw from the case, including one who resigned from the Justice Department in protest.
Yet the new prosecution team did not ease its call for a steep sentence for Stone. John Crabb, an assistant U.S. Attorney, said that Stone had committed serious offenses and deserved a "substantial period of incarceration."
"This prosecution was and this prosecution is righteous," Crabb said.
Although Crabb acknowledged that it is the Justice Department's policy to follow federal sentencing guidelines, he said that given "the unique facts and circumstance" of the case, the government would leave it up to the judge to determine the right prison term for Stone.
Trump recently attacked Jackson for subjecting his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, to "solitary confinement." Jackson, who presided over Manafort's trial, sentenced him in 2019 to seven-and-half years in prison.
Crabb took a swipe at Trump's attack on Jackson, saying the government had "utmost confidence" in her sentencing decision.
"The Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office is committed to enforcing the law without fear, favor or political influence," Crabb said.
Barr's extraordinary decision February 11 fueled concerns about the Justice Department's historic independence from political influence dating back to the post-Watergate era.
Congressional Democrats demanded an investigation. More than 2,000 former Justice Department officials called on Barr to resign. And an association of federal judges voiced concerns about political meddling in the country's historically independent system of justice.
Barr has defended his involvement in the case, saying he found the recommended sentence excessive. He reportedly threatened to resign this week after Trump defied his request to stop tweeting and commenting about the Stone prosecution and other Justice Department cases. A department spokeswoman said late Tuesday that Barr has no plans to resign.