A week after Attorney General William Barr overturned the Justice Department's recommendation for a stiff prison sentence for U.S. President Donald Trump's friend Roger Stone, the public uproar over political meddling in the U.S. system of justice continues to rage.
A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Stone will be sentenced Thursday while she decides whether to grant the presidential friend's request for a new trial. Stone's motion for a retrial came after Trump accused the jury forewoman in the case of "significant bias."
He was convicted last November of seven counts, including lying to Congress about his role in Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and tampering with a witness.
Whether or not Stone is given a new trial, the decision to sentence him rests with Judge Amy Berman Jackson. Trump has railed at Jackson for subjecting another former associate to solitary confinement. The likelihood that she will send Stone to prison has heightened speculation that Trump could respond with a pardon for a friend he thinks has been unjustly prosecuted.
Trump has not ruled out pardoning Stone. While he has the power to pardon anyone convicted of a federal crime for any reason other than impeachment, shielding a friend convicted of serious crimes from prison could raise new questions about the independence of the system of justice under his administration.
If Trump were to pardon Stone, it would "turn this into a very, very big political event," said David Axelrod, a former Justice Department prosecutor.
"It would further undermine faith in law enforcement in this country and show normal people that if you're a friend of the president or those in power, you may not be treated the same as average Americans," Axelrod said.
Hans von Spakovsky, another Justice Department official now with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, said the president's pardon power is near absolute and that it would not be out of the ordinary for a president to pardon a convicted friend.
"He's got the ability to do that and it can't be questioned," von Spakovsky said. "Neither Congress nor anyone else can overrule or somehow prevent a pardon issued by the president."
In 2001, just hours before leaving office, then-President Bill Clinton pardoned fugitive trader Marc Rich in one of the most controversial presidential pardons. Rich's wife had pledged large sums of money to Clinton's presidential library.
"It was very clearly done for political reasons and not because this individual Marc Rich had somehow acknowledged wrongdoing or anything else," von Spakovsky said.
Trump and Stone have been friends for decades. In the 1980s, Stone, a self-described "political trickster" who has an image of the disgraced former President Richard Nixon tattooed on his back, encouraged Trump, then an up-and-coming New York real estate developer, to run for president.
Last November, a jury found Stone guilty of obstruction of justice, witness tampering and lying to Congress about his efforts during the 2016 presidential election to obtain stolen emails of Hillary Clinton from the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
The controversy over Stone's sentencing erupted last week when Barr and other top Justice Department officials overturned four career prosecutors' recommendation that Stone receive seven to nine years in prison, in line with federal sentencing guidelines.
Barr's decision came shortly after Trump tweeted that the recommended sentence was "a miscarriage of justice" that could not be allowed to move forward, fueling concerns that Barr was carrying out the president's wishes. The four prosecutors withdrew from the case in protest.
Although both Trump and Barr later said they had never discussed the Stone case, the fury did not subside amid new reports that Barr had brought in outside prosecutors to oversee politically sensitive investigations and review a number of criminal cases, including the case of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
In an open letter issued Sunday, more than 2,000 former Justice Department officials called on Barr to resign. A national association of federal judges called an emergency meeting to address the controversy.
"It is really a wake-up call to the country to make sure that we're paying attention to the importance of having an independent Justice Department," said Derek Cohen, a former senior Justice Department official and current partner at the Goodwin law firm, who signed the letter.
Whether Trump will pardon Stone remains uncertain. But Trump has the authority to pardon him. The U.S. Constitution empowers the president "to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment." A presidential pardon restores a convict's civil rights, such as the right to vote.
Since taking office, Trump has pardoned 18 convicted felons, including several well-connected figures in conservative circles. In 2017, he pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joseph Arpaio a month after Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court for ignoring a judge's order to stop arresting immigrants on suspicion that they were undocumented.
On Tuesday, Trump issued full pardons to several prominent individuals, including Michael Milken, a former Wall Street financier, and Bernard Kerik, a former New York City Commissioner and business partner of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Trump has previously expressed openness to pardoning his former associates, saying it was unfair that former campaign manager Paul Manafort got a stiff sentence while former FBI Director James Comey walked free. More recently, however, Trump batted away questions about an immediate pardon. Last week, he told radio talk show host Geraldo Rivera that he didn't "want to talk about pardons right now."
The implications of pardoning Stone "are not good for our country and the independence of our judiciary moving forward," said Cohen, the former Justice official. "In past administrations and past history, if presidents were to go out of their way and abuse or appear to abuse the pardon system to benefit their friends, that would be the sort of thing that one would expect either the voters or the Congress would have a problem with."