Trump associate Roger Stone sentenced to 40 months in prison after roller-coaster trial
Trump, days after issuing pardons to others, says Stone has 'a very good chance at exoneration'
Calling the president's frequent tweets about the case "entirely inappropriate," a federal judge sentenced Donald Trump ally Roger Stone to over three years in prison on Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson handed down a 40-month sentence after Stone was convicted in November on a seven-count indictment that accused him of lying to Congress, tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign co-ordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election.
Stone, 67, received a 40-month sentence for the obstruction charge, while the other sentences — 18 months for tampering and 12 months for lying — are to run concurrently.
The penalties also include 24 months of probation after the prison term and a $20,000 US fine, but the sentence won't be immediately implemented. Stone's defence team has filed a motion requesting a new trial, on which Jackson will rule separately.
Jackson said Stone's crimes demanded a significant time behind bars, but she viewed the original recommendations by the Justice Department as excessive.
Nevertheless, the sentence seems likely to draw a public rebuke from Trump, who maintains that Stone's entire case is just an aspect of the ongoing "witch hunt" against him and his allies by bitter Democrats and the "deep state" inside the FBI and the Justice Department.
Given Trump's clemency spree this week, there has also been speculation that Trump could eventually pardon Stone.
Trump said while speaking at an event in Las Vegas after the verdict that he wants to "let this process play out" in Stone's case but that he "has a very good chance at exoneration, in my opinion."
Stone's lawyers had asked for a sentence of probation, citing his age, his health, his persona as a provocateur and his lack of criminal history.
"He was not prosecuted — as some have complained — for standing up for the president. He was prosecuted for covering up for the president," said Jackson.
"There was nothing unfair, phony or disgraceful about the investigation or the prosecution," she said, citing words that Trump has used.
Trump has taken to Twitter to denounce the charges and sentencing recommendations, including one tweet 20 minutes after Thursday's proceedings got underway.
"The court cannot be influenced by those comments," said Jackson. "They were entirely inappropriate."
Stone had no immediate reaction in court when Jackson announced his sentence. Later, he emerged from the courthouse to a crowd exchanging back-and-forth chants of "Lock him up" and "Pardon Roger Stone." Stone got into a black SUV without speaking to reporters.
His attorney, Bruce Rogow, said Stone and his team would "have no comment."
Stone is the sixth Trump aide or adviser to be convicted of charges brought as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen are currently serving prison sentences, while Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos received short prison terms. The fate of former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn has yet to be determined; Flynn withdrew an earlier guilty plea.
Case sparked controversy in Justice Department
In Stone's initial sentencing memorandum filed Feb. 10, prosecutors said Stone deserved a prison term lasting seven to nine years, in accordance with federal sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors had charged in the filing that Stone "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."
Attorney General William Barr backed off the original Justice Department recommendation, prompting four prosecutors to quit Stone's case. The attorney general ordered a new memorandum with a less harsh punishment, though it provided no specifics and left the details to the judge.
Barr later said in an ABC News interview that he had not been asked by Trump to look into the case, but he did not go into great detail as to why he chose to intervene in this specific case.
"Why are you the one who is standing here today?" Jackson asked federal prosecutor John Crabb, who took over the case after the original trial team quit.
Jackson questioned Crabb closely about exactly what happened within the Justice Department. Crabb said there had been a "miscommunication" between Barr and Timothy Shea, the former Barr aide who now serves as the acting U.S. Attorney in the nation's capital.
In an open letter to the media, over 1,000 former Justice Department officials last week called on Barr to resign.
"A person should not be given special treatment in a criminal prosecution because they are a close political ally of the president," the letter read.
Stone's communications with WikiLeaks under scrutiny
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 defence.
The evidence presented in trial provided new insight into the scramble inside the Trump campaign when it was revealed in July 2016 that the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks was in possession of more than 19,000 emails hacked from the servers of the Democratic National Committee.
Witnesses testified that Trump's campaign viewed Stone as an "access point" to WikiLeaks and tried to use him to get advance word about hacked emails damaging to Hillary Clinton.
Prosecutors argued that Stone had lied to Congress about his conversations about WikiLeaks with New York radio host and comedian Randy Credico.
During the 2016 campaign, Stone had mentioned in interviews and public appearances that he was in contact with founder Julian Assange through a trusted intermediary and hinted at inside knowledge of WikiLeaks's plans.
Photo of judge with target 'intolerable'
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.
Prosecutors also charged that Stone had threatened Credico's therapy dog, Bianca, saying he was "going to take that dog away from you."
In the run-up to trial, Stone raised the ire of the judge with comments made in social media posts and interviews, leading to a gag order and the threat of pre-trial detention.
Jackson said during the hearing that Stone's use of social media to stoke public sentiment against the prosecution and the court was intended to reach a wide audience, including an Instagram post with a photo of her with crosshairs superimposed.
"This is intolerable to the administration of justice," Jackson said.
While Trump has tried to downplay his personal relationship with some of the associates previously charged or convicted, he was a client of the lobbying firm Black, Manafort and Stone beginning in the 1980s, and Stone was often by Trump's side as he talked up a possible 2000 bid for president as a candidate of the Reform Party.
In 2015, Stone was on board as Trump launched his bid for president as a Republican, but left the campaign in an official capacity in August that year.
"He was not involved when I ran for president [in 2016]," Trump protested in his speech Thursday in Nevada.
But as details of the indictment made clear, Stone was regularly in touch with Trump campaign officials throughout the campaign in 2016 and into the transition phase.
With files from CBC News and Reuters