Dramatic twist in trial of Trump’s mate
Donald Trump is continuing to lash out at "rogue prosecutors" for supposedly treating his longtime associate Roger Stone "unfairly", brushing aside growing accusations of political interference in the trial.
All four prosecutors in the case resigned in protest yesterday after the Department of Justice intervened to overrule their recommended sentence for Mr Stone, who has been convicted of witness tampering, lying to Congress and obstructing investigators.
The prosecutors - Aaron Zelinsky, Jonathan Kravis, Adam Jed and Mike Marando - had asked Judge Amy Berman Jackson for a sentence of 7-9 years in prison.
Mr Trump, who's been friends with Mr Stone for decades and has frequently used him as a political adviser, tweeted that such a sentence would be "horrible", "very unfair" and "a miscarriage of justice".
This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice! https://t.co/rHPfYX6Vbv— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 11, 2020
The next day, the Justice Department suddenly undercut its own prosecution team and called for a more lenient punishment.
"While it remains the position of the US that a sentence of incarceration is warranted here, the government respectfully submits that the range of 87-108 months presented as the applicable advisory guidelines range would not be appropriate or serve the interests of justice in this case," it wrote.
The intervention shocked legal experts, and sparked accusations that Mr Trump's Justice Department was giving one of his mates special treatment.
"This is not the way the Department of Justice is supposed to work," said Dan Abrams, the chief legal analyst for ABC News.
"It's supposed to be independent! It is not supposed to be there to protect the President's allies and punish his enemies. This is a disgrace."
The head of the department, Attorney-General William Barr, has agreed to testify to a congressional committee about the allegations of political interference.
In the meantime, Mr Trump has doubled down, first on Twitter and then during a press conference at the White House.
Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought. Evidence now clearly shows that the Mueller Scam was improperly brought & tainted. Even Bob Mueller lied to Congress!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 12, 2020
He spoke to reporters in the Oval Office today after a bilateral meeting with Ecuadorean President Lenin Moreno.
Mr Moreno sat quietly as his counterpart embarked on a long monologue defending Mr Stone and lashing out at law enforcement.
I'll give you Mr Trump's full comments before we start fact checking them.
"He was treated very badly," he said of Mr Stone.
"Nine years recommended by four people that, I don't know, perhaps they were Mueller people, prosecutors, and I don't know what happened, they all hit the road pretty quickly.
"Look you had somebody recently, you saw what happened, he got sentenced to two months, two months for leaking classified information at the highest level.
"They treated Roger Stone very badly, they treated everybody very badly, and if you look at the Mueller investigation, it was a scam, because it was illegally set up. It was set up based on false documentation and false documents.
"You look at what happened, how many people were hurt, their lives were destroyed, and nothing happened with all the people that did it and launched the scam. Where is Comey? Where is Comey? What's happening to McCabe? What's happening Lisa and Peter Strzok? And Lisa Page? What's happening with them? It was a whole set-up, it was a disgrace for our country and everyone knows it. Everyone. Including NBC, which gives a lot of fake news."
He punctuated that last part by glaring at an NBC reporter in the room.
"The fact is that Roger Stone was treated horribly, and so were many other people. Their lives were destroyed. And it turns out, you look at the FISA warrants and what just happened with FISA, where they found out it was fixed, it was a dirty, rotten deal," Mr Trump continued.
"So when you look at that, and you see what happened to Roger Stone - but think of it, a man leaks classified information. Highly classified. They give him two months. Roger Stone for doing, nobody even knows what he did. In fact they said he intimidated somebody, that person said he had no idea he was going to jail for that, that person didn't want to press charges. They put him in for nine years? It's a disgrace.
"And frankly, they ought to apologise to a lot of the people whose lives they've ruined."
Someone asked whether Mr Trump would use his power as President to pardon Mr Stone.
"I don't want to say that yet, but I tell you what, people were hurt viciously and badly by these corrupt people," he replied.
"And I want to thank the Justice Department for seeing this horrible thing - and I didn't speak to them by the way, just so you understand - they saw the horribleness of a nine year sentence for doing nothing.
"You have murderers and drug addicts that don't get nine years. Nine years for doing something that nobody even can define what he did. Somebody said he put out a tweet, and the tweet, you base it on that.
"We have killers, we have murderers all over the place and nothing happens. And then they put a man in jail and destroy his life, his family, his wife, his children? Nine years in jail, it's a disgrace. And in the meantime Comey walks around making book deals. The people that launched the scam investigation.
"It's a disgrace, and hopefully it will be treated fairly, everything else will be treated fairly."
Finally, Mr Trump was asked whether he was "concerned" about the four prosecutors who had resigned from the Stone case.
"I'm not concerned about anything. They ought to go back to school and learn, because I tell you what, the way they treated people? Nobody should be treated like that," he said.
OK, let's break down Mr Trump's claims one by one.
Were the four prosecutors who quit yesterday "Mueller people"? The answer is a partial yes.
Two of them - Mr Zelinsky and Mr Jed - were involved in the Mueller investigation, which examined Russian election interference and ensnared a number of Trump associates.
Mr Zelinsky helped prosecute George Papadopoulos, who served as a foreign policy adviser for Mr Trump's campaign. Mr Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian intermediaries, and spent two weeks in jail.
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Was "somebody" recently sentenced to two months in prison for leaking highly classified information? We'll call this one half true.
As far as I can tell, Mr Trump was referring to the case of James Wolfe. The former head of security for Congress's Senate Intelligence Committee, Mr Wolfe got two months for lying to the FBI about his communications with reporters. Prosecutors had asked for two years.
He was sentenced in December of 2018, so it isn't exactly "recent"; his punishment was for lying to investigators, not the leaking itself; and he gave reporters "non-public" information, not "highly classified" information. But details have never been Mr Trump's strong suit.
It's also a dubious comparison to Mr Stone's case. Mr Wolfe pleaded guilty to one count. Mr Stone pleaded not guilty to seven, including witness tampering, which elevates his potential sentence significantly.
Was the Mueller investigation a "scam illegally set up based on false documents"? No. Goodness me, where to begin?
The President has repeatedly conflated the Mueller investigation with the FBI's original investigation into Russia's election interference. They were not the same thing.
The FBI opened its investigation after receiving a tip off - from Australia, incidentally - that Russia had a "dirt file" on Hillary Clinton.
Alexander Downer, who was then serving as our high commissioner in the United Kingdom, learned that piece of information from Mr Papadopoulos. Mr Downer then alerted Canberra, which passed it on to US intelligence.
The Mueller investigation was set up by the deputy attorney-general of Mr Trump's own Justice Department, Rod Rosenstein, in the wake of the President's decision to abruptly fire FBI director James Comey.
Mr Trump originally justified the sacking by accusing Mr Comey of mishandling the investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server. That explanation quickly crumbled as the President himself contradicted it on national television. The real reason was that Mr Comey had refused to curtail the FBI's Russia investigation.
Mr Rosenstein - who is a Republican, by the way - called in special counsel Robert Mueller to get to the bottom of things and continue the investigation into Russia's election interference.
Finally, what are the "false documents" Mr Trump referred to?
That would be the Steele dossier, a raw intelligence document commissioned as opposition research by one of Mr Trump's rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and later picked up by the Democrats.
Much of the dossier proved to be inaccurate, and there was no evidence to back up its more salacious allegations. This isn't particularly relevant, however, because the dossier was not the basis for setting up either the Mueller or FBI investigation.
It was used as part of the justification for surveilling one Trump campaign operative, Carter Page. But Mr Trump was alleging something far broader here.
Were people's "lives destroyed" by the Mueller investigation? Yes.
Of course, the people in question committed crimes. That is kind of the point of investigations - to catch people doing things wrong.
We won't count Mr Papadopoulos. I don't think two weeks in jail qualifies as a life destroying punishment. But five other associates of Mr Trump were indicted because of the Mueller investigation and have paid a fairly heavy price.
The President's former campaign manager Paul Manafort has been convicted of a number of financial crimes, for which he's serving seven-and-a-half years in prison.
Mr Manafort's deputy Rick Gates took a plea deal and copped 45 days in jail, plus another three years of probation.
Mr Trump's first White House national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
The President's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen struck a plea deal with Mr Mueller, but separately, he also pleaded guilty to eight charges. Some of those related to the hush money payments he organised to keep women quiet about their affairs with Mr Trump during the election campaign.
And Mr Stone, of course, has yet to be sentenced.
Mr Mueller also indicted a dozen officers from Russia's military intelligence service and 13 more Russian nationals for interfering in the election campaign. Good luck getting them to face court though.
Was the FISA process "fixed" in a "dirty, rotten deal"? No, but with an important caveat.
We're talking about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In basic terms, that is where the FBI goes to get permission to spy on people.
The Justice Department Inspector-General Michael Horowitz recently reviewed the FBI's conduct in the Russia investigation, and handed down his report in December.
He found the investigation was justified. However, he also identified 17 mistakes in the agency's applications to surveil Mr Page, including "multiple instances" of insufficiently supported facts being used.
Mr Horowitz did not conclude the court was wrong when it granted and then renewed the surveillance warrants. He did criticise the FBI for some seriously sloppy work.
So while Mr Trump's claim there was a "fixed" process is hogwash, the FISA system actually does deserve some heavy criticism.
Does "nobody even know" what Roger Stone did? Can "nobody even define" his crimes? What? No. That's ridiculous.
We know exactly what Mr Stone did. He was tried by a jury of his peers, which listened to the evidence and then found him guilty on all seven counts.
Five of them were for making false statements to Congress. The other two were for obstructing an official proceeding and witness tampering.
The short version is that Mr Stone repeatedly attempted to mislead investigators about his attempts to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from Wikileaks. He a told a lot of easily disprovable lies under oath, and pressured an associate - Randy Credico - to do the same. Hence the witness tampering charge.
Some of Mr Stone's text messages to Mr Credico were pretty colourful. At one point he called him a backstabbing "rat" and told him to "prepare to die".
Mr Trump's assertion that Mr Credico "didn't want to press charges" and had "no idea" Mr Stone would go to jail is disingenuous.
Mr Credico has said he is "morally against" incarceration for anyone. But he has also praised the four prosecutors who resigned yesterday. He's certainly not on Mr Trump's side here.
As the son of a man who spent 10 years in prison, I have consistantly opposed incarceration. That being said, Trump's vile smear job on the 4 DC prosecutors were appalling and ominous. In my experience, I found them to be professional, moral, ethical and non partisan.— Randy Credico (@Credico2016) February 12, 2020
Mr Stone is scheduled to be sentenced on February 20. But first, Judge Jackson has quite the mess to clean up.