President Donald Trump issued a commutation today for his former campaign consultant Roger Stone, a notorious conservative political operative who was convicted last year of lying to Congress and witness tampering.
When Trump announced the commutation, Stone was days away from reporting to a federal prison in Jessup, Georgia, to serve 40 months behind bars. Stone's allies had been lobbying Trump as Stone's prison sentence approached, and Trump had hinted at the pardon in radio and TV interviews this week.
"Well, I'll be looking at it," Trump told reporters outside the White House Friday. "I think Roger Stone was very unfairly untreated, as were many people."
The White House released a statement Friday night saying Stone was "a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency."
"Mr. Stone was charged by the same prosecutors from the Mueller Investigation tasked with finding evidence of collusion with Russia," the White House statement continues. "Because no such evidence exists, however, they could not charge him for any collusion-related crime. Instead, they charged him for his conduct during their investigation. The simple fact is that if the Special Counsel had not been pursuing an absolutely baseless investigation, Mr. Stone would not be facing time in prison."
The White House also cited the "egregious facts and circumstances surrounding his unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial," such as the "spectacle" of Stone's arrest by armed FBI agents, jury bias against Stone, and his advanced age, which puts him at risk of COVID-19 if he catches the virus in federal prison.
As with the Justice Department's unprecedented attempt to dismiss charges against former national security adviser Michael Flynn after he pleaded guilty in open court to making false statements to the FBI, Stone's pardon is a case of the Trump administration citing legitimate problems with the criminal justice system for nakedly cynical and self-serving ends. The Justice Department did not care about excessive sentencing or unfair prosecutions before. It does not care about them now, and it will not care about them when they're used again to railroad defendants who aren't Trump's allies.
This isn't the first time the Trump administration has stepped in to protect Stone. A federal grand jury indicted Stone last January on seven counts of obstruction of justice, false statements, and witness tampering stemming from Special Prosecutor Roger Mueller's probe of Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election. Stone was convicted on all counts in November.
Federal prosecutors originally recommended a seven- to nine-year prison sentence for Stone, prompting Trump to fume on Twitter that this was "horrible and very unfair." A day later, the Justice Department overrode the line prosecutors' recommendations—an almost unheard of event—saying Stone deserved a far lighter sentence.
As Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote, Stone's sentence was indeed excessive, but the Justice Department's sudden about-face was still "unseemly and smacks of legal favoritism."
Stone's lawyers tried to appeal his conviction, arguing the jury was politically biased against him. They also asked the court to delay sending Stone, 67, to federal prison because of the ongoing threat of COVID-19.
But U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson rejected his appeal and his request for a two-month delay to the beginning of his prison sentence, instead granting him a two-week delay.
Stone got his start in politics in Richard Nixon's infamous Committee for the Re-election of the President. From those auspicious beginnings, he carved out a career as a flamboyant campaign consultant, lobbyist, and "dirty trickster." He got a tattoo of Nixon's face on his back to complete the image.
Naturally, Stone gravitated toward Trump, whose tawdry brand of soap-opera politics and intrigue fit his style quite well. ("Politics with me isn't theater. It's performance art, sometimes for its own sake," Stone told The Weekly Standard's Matt Labash in a definitive 2007 profile.)
After he resigned from Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign—following a National Enquirer story reporting that he had placed ads in several publications for swingers—Stone was a casino lobbyist for Trump and advised his brief Reform Party presidential campaign in 2000.
Stone jumped to the Libertarian Party in 2012 and started a PAC to support Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. He also considered running for Florida governor as a Libertarian in 2014, but ultimately decided against it.
Although Stone left Trump's 2016 campaign under a cloud of recriminations and drama, he remained a staunch supporter of the president, and memorably showed up to the inauguration dressed like Snidely Whiplash, or perhaps the Babadook.
Success did not temper Stone's passions. Once, on Twitter, he called former RNC chairman and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus "rancid penis." Tragically, that tweet is now lost to the ether: Stone's Twitter account was suspended in 2017, after he sent a series of profanity-laden messages to various CNN anchors. Judge Jackson later barred Stone from using social media, after he repeatedly violated a gag order during his trial.
The trial and Stone's muzzling turned him into a martyr among hardcore Trump fans, complete with popular "Roger Stone did nothing wrong" t-shirts.
Stone was no more a martyr than any other defendant who finds him or herself in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors—all the less so because he couldn't seem to figure out that federal investigators, prosecutors, juries, and judges don't appreciate political performance art.
Lucky for him, his old business associate Trump is a master of the medium.
"Roger Stone has already suffered greatly," the White House statement concludes. "He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!"