Three career Department of Justice prosecutors abruptly resigned their posts on Tuesday, in an apparent dramatic protest just hours after senior leaders at the DOJ said they would take the extraordinary step of effectively overruling the prosecutors’ judgment by seeking a lesser sentence for President Trump’s former adviser Roger Stone.
Fox News reported earlier Tuesday that top brass at the DOJ were “shocked” that prosecutors handling the case had recommended Monday night that Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentence the 67-year-old Stone to between 87 and 108 months in prison. The prosecutors asserted in the Monday filing that Stone’s conduct post-indictment — including violating the judge’s social media gag orders — merited a sentence much longer than the 15-to-21 months that the defense said was advisable under the federal sentencing guidelines.
In a new filing Tuesday afternoon, the DOJ told Jackson that the government “respectfully submits that a sentence of incarceration far less than 87 to 108 months’ imprisonment would be reasonable under the circumstances,” but that the government “ultimately defers to the Court as to the specific sentence to be imposed.”
A senior DOJ official told Fox News that senior leadership officials there made the call to reverse the sentencing recommendation, saying the Monday evening filing was inconsistent with how the prosecutors had briefed DOJ leadership.
Stone has been convicted on seven counts of obstruction, witness tampering, and making false statements to Congress on charges that stemmed from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Prosecutors charged that Stone lied to Congress about his conversations about WikiLeaks with New York radio host Randy Credico, although Stone was never actually linked to any criminal conspiracy to access or leak documents.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Trump said he stayed out of internal DOJ deliberations, but strongly opposed their initial sentencing recommendation. “I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn’t believe,” Trump said. He added that the initial recommendation was “ridiculous” and called it “an insult to our country.”
Mueller closed shop last May, although several prosecutors had remained behind to handle cases like Stone’s — prompting conservative commenators to openly wonder if politics had motivated their desire for an especially harsh sentence.
Democrats, meanwhile, accused the White House of overtly politicizing the DOJ. “The DOJ Inspector General must open an investigation immediately,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter Tuesday afternoon. “I will be sending a formal request to the IG shortly.”
Trump, shortly after midnight on Tuesday, complained publicly that the recommended sentence for his longtime ally and confidant was “very horrible and unfair.” But, the DOJ said the decision to shorten the sentencing recommendation was made Monday night — before Trump’s tweet — and that prosecutors had not spoken to the White House about it.
Shortly afterward, one prosecutor on the case, Assistant US Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Washington D.C. Jonathan Kravis, resigned as an assistant U.S. attorney in a filing with Judge Jackson.
Another posecutor, Aaron Zelinsky, also filed a notice with the court that he was leaving his position as a special prosecutor with the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, although he would remain as an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore.
Another prosecutor, Adam Jed, abruptly withdrew from the Stone case as well.
The move raised questions about political interference and whether Trump’s views hold unusual sway over the Justice Department, which is meant to operate independently of the White House in criminal investigations and prosecutions.
In the sentencing memorandum Monday night, prosecutors asked for Stone to serve between 87 and 108 months in federal prison — the sentence they said was in line with federal guidelines. Such a sentence would send a message to deter others who might consider lying or obstructing a congressional probe or tampering with witnesses, they said.
The recommendation raised the prospect that Stone could receive the harshest sentence of any of the half-dozen Trump aides charged in Mueller’s probe.
The prosecutors wrote in the court papers that “Stone’s actions were not a one-off mistake in judgement” and that he “decided to double – and triple – down on his criminal conduct by tampering with a witness for months in order to make sure his obstruction would be successful.”
In a tweet early Tuesday, Trump said the case against Stone was a “miscarriage of justice.”
It is extremely rare for Justice Department leaders to reverse the decision of its own prosecutors on a sentencing recommendation, particularly after that recommendation has been submitted to the court. Normally, United States attorneys have wide latitude to recommend sentences on cases that they prosecuted.
Sentencing decisions are ultimately up to the judge, who in this case may side with the original Justice Department recommendation. Judge Jackson has repeatedly scolded Stone for his out-of-court behavior, which included a social media post he made of the judge with what appeared to be crosshairs of a gun.
The judge barred Stone from social media last July after concluding that she repeatedly flouted his gag order.
Besides, judges invariably frown upon crimes that they see as perverting the functions of the criminal justice system, such as making false statements or obstructing an investigation.
The Justice Department plans to refile the recommendation later Tuesday.
Federal prosecutors also recently softened their sentencing position on former national security adviser Michael Flynn, saying that they would not oppose a probation of punishment after initially saying that he deserved up to six months in prison for lying to the FBI. The Flynn prosecution is also being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington.
Stone has denied wrongdoing and consistently criticized the case against him as politically motivated. He did not take the stand during his trial and his lawyers did not call any witnesses in his defense.
Witnesses in the case testified that Trump’s campaign viewed Stone as an “access point” to the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks, which was in possession of more than 19,000 emails hacked from the servers of the Democratic National Committee and tried to use him to get advance word about hacked emails damaging to Hillary Clinton.
Prosecutors charged that Stone lied to Congress about his conversations about WikiLeaks with Credico — who had scored an interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in 2016 — and conservative writer Jerome Corsi.
During the 2016 campaign, Stone mentioned in interviews and public appearances that he was in contact with Assange through a trusted intermediary and hinted at inside knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans. But he started pressing Credico to broker a contact, and Credico testified that he told Stone to work through his own intermediary.
Earlier testimony revealed that Stone, while appearing before the House Intelligence Committee, named Credico as his intermediary to Assange and pressured Credico not to contradict him.
After Credico was contacted by Congress, he reached out to Stone, who told him he should “stonewall it” and “plead the fifth,” he testified. Credico also testified during Stone’s trial that Stone repeatedly told him to “do a ‘Frank Pentangeli,’” a reference to a character in “The Godfather: Part II” who lies before Congress.
Prosecutors also charged that Stone had threatened Credico’s therapy dog, Bianca, saying he was “going to take that dog away from you.”
Fox News’ Andrew O’Reilly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.