Our opinion: The rule of law for thee, but not for Trump's allies
At the heart of fair governance lies the need for checks and balances, chief of which is an impartial justice system beholden to no one — not even the president of the United States.
Therefore, it is deeply unfortunate that President Donald Trump brazenly inserted himself into the federal case of his friend and convicted felon, Roger Stone.
Federal prosecutors with the Washington, D.C., U.S. Attorney's Office on Monday had asked a judge to send Mr. Stone to prison for seven to nine years for his obstruction of the House Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
President Trump then saw it fit early Tuesday to publicly weigh in on his friend's ongoing case, calling the U.S. attorneys' sentencing recommendation "horrible and very unfair."
What followed was an extraordinary move by the Department of Justice. Senior DOJ officials announced that they would resubmit the sentencing memorandum — undermining their own prosecutors' recommendation — to suggest a more lenient amount of prison time for Mr. Stone, who was convicted of seven charges that comprised lying under oath to Congress and federal investigators, and trying to block another witness' testimony during Robert Mueller's probe into Russian election interference.
A DOJ spokeswoman said Tuesday that the about-face on Mr. Stone's sentencing was made absent discussion with the White House and was not in reaction to a directive from the president. Given the timing and unusual nature of the circumstances, this is a particularly hard line to swallow — even without taking into account U.S. Attorney General William Barr's history of holding loyalty to President Trump over doing his job of objectively upholding the law.
At best, the president seems distrusting of the American justice system to do its due diligence without him exerting his own influence and personal preferences, however indirect, over the entire process. At worst, the president and the DOJ are being less than honest about just how direct the influence was, further eroding the pillar of judiciary independence that supports our governments' checks and balances.
President Trump would be entirely within his authority — if perhaps on ethically shaky ground — to pardon Mr. Stone if he feels his friend is unfairly sentenced. But it's another thing entirely to publicly signal possible interference with the case while it is still ongoing, an alarming example of the president feeling entitled to subverting impartial justice. Sadly, the highest law enforcement office in the land is seemingly complicit in setting this dangerous precedent.
It should be noted that Mr. Barr currently sits atop the DOJ because his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, was not as responsive to the executive's every whim as President Trump had hoped for in an AG. As Jeff Flake, then a Republican senator, pointed out in a 2018 interview: "The president has been pushing [Sessions] very openly to go after the president's enemies and lay off his friends. And so far, Jeff Sessions, bless his heart, has resisted and maintained that the judiciary needs to be independent."
The DOJ under Mr. Barr, however, appears to have no such qualms. Thus the gears of justice will grind into reverse so as to not too harshly inconvenience a felon who happens to be the president's pal.
The decision to lighten the sentencing recommendation prompted all four of the federal prosecutors involved in Mr. Stone's trial to withdraw from the case in protest. One of them, Jonathan Kravis, resigned from his post as an assistant U.S. attorney, saying he "no longer represents the government in this matter." Indeed, when it comes to pursuing impartial justice and putting a check on an unhinged executive branch, it seems fewer and fewer represent the government in this matter.
Remember well those allies of Trump, be they members of Congress or DOJ officials, who champion "law and order" but remain silent now (and likely remained silent when Sessions was ousted). At some point, they will tout "the rule of law," but won't finish the sentence: "... for some."
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