WASHINGTON (CN) — President Donald Trump has commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, erasing the 40-month sentence he received in February after being convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering.
The move has long been anticipated, as Trump has railed against Stone’s prosecution as unfair and politically motivated. A confidant of Trump’s and longtime GOP strategist, Stone’s charges related to lying about his communications with Wikileaks during the November election and came out of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
In a statement announcing the commutation, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany called Stone a “victim of the Russia hoax” and his conviction “the product of recklessness borne of frustration and malice.”
“Roger Stone has already suffered greatly,” McEnany said. “He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!”
Trump had in two interviews earlier in the day suggested Stone might be pardoned or have his sentence commuted.
“He was framed,” Trump said in an interview with radio host Howie Carr. “He was treated horrible. He was treated so badly.”
When Carr told the president there have been reports that Stone is “praying” for his convictions to be commuted, Trump suggested they might be successful.
“Well if you say he’s praying, his prayer may be answered,” Trump said.
Stone attorney Grant Smith praised Trump for taking the action.
“Mr. Stone is incredibly honored that President Trump used his awesome and unique power under the Constitution of the United States for this act of mercy,” Smith said in a statement. “Mr. and Mrs. Stone appreciate all the consideration the president gave to this matter.”
Democrats quickly condemned the commutation as unprecedented and corrupt.
“By this action, President Trump abused the powers of his office in an apparent effort to reward Roger Stone for his refusal to cooperate with investigators examining the president’s own conduct,” House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler and House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney said in a statement. “No other president has exercised the clemency power for such a patently personal and self-serving purpose.”
Nadler and Maloney said they plan to seek a briefing from the White House on the process that led to Stone’s commutation. The two chairs of the powerful committees also plan to push the Justice Department to turn over grand jury materials shedding light on Stone’s conversations with Trump.
The commutation comes after a highly controversial sentencing process that caused multiple career prosecutors to quit the case and drew calls for Attorney General William Barr’s impeachment.
After Trump publicly blasted its initial sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years behind bars for Stone as a “miscarriage of justice,” the Justice Department backtracked, instead proposing 15 to 21 months in prison.
In testimony to the House Judiciary Committee at the end of June, Aaron Zelinsky, who served as a prosecutor on Stone’s case and stepped down after the sentencing walk back, testified there was pressure from high levels of the Justice Department to give Stone preferential treatment.
“What I saw was that Roger Stone was being treated differently from every other defendant,” Zelinsky said. “He received breaks, that are, in my experience, unheard of.”
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson excoriated the Justice Department’s handling of the case and sentenced Stone to 40 months in prison.
Just before the commutation, the D.C. Circuit upheld a lower court order directing Stone to report to prison on July 14.
Citing concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic, Stone had already received a 61-day reprieve from his initial surrender date when he asked in June to put off his report date until Sept. 3. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson on June 26 gave Stone until July 14 to report, prompting an appeal to the D.C. Circuit from the convicted confidant of President Donald Trump.
In a brief unsigned order on Friday, the circuit ruled Stone is ineligible for release “as a matter of law” under federal law that provides for release due to “exceptional reasons.”
The court ruled Stone’s appeal of his conviction is not sufficiently likely to provide him a new trial or a reversal or reduction of his sentence to warrant the relief he seeks.
“He has not even identified what issues he might raise on appeal,” the order states. “As a result, he is double ineligible for release under section 3145(c) as a matter of law.”
The order allows Stone to present new evidence “that he believes might warrant reconsideration to the district court for it to evaluate in the first instance.” Stone had cited in his appeal concerns about an outbreak at Federal Correctional Institution Jessup, where he would serve his sentence, but the appeals court ruled the lower court has not had the chance to evaluate that information.
Jessup currently has 24 active cases of Covid-19 among inmates and six among staff members.
Like other high-profile inmates who have sought early release or delay of their sentence due to the pandemic, Stone has said he is concerned about reporting to prison “in light of his heightened risk of serious medical consequences from exposure to the Covid-19 virus.”
The order from the appeals court comes the same day Trump gave two interviews suggesting that he would pardon or grant clemency to Stone.