A government lawyer said he resigned from the team prosecuting President Donald Trump’s longtime confidant Roger Stone because the Justice Department inappropriately pushed for a more lenient sentence.
“I have never seen political influence play a role in prosecutorial decision making, with one exception: United States v. Roger Stone,” federal prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky said in testimony prepared for a hearing Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee.
Zelinsky was one of four prosecutors who withdrew from the case in February when they were asked to submit a revised legal filing that played down Stone’s criminal conduct and invited the judge to impose a lesser sentence. The Justice Department pressured the line prosecutors to “water down and in some cases outright distort” the nature of Stone’s conduct, Zelinsky said.
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“What I heard — repeatedly — was that Roger Stone was bring treated differently from any other defendant because of his relationship to the president,” he said. He said Tim Shea, whom Attorney General William Barr appointed as acting U.S. attorney in Washington, “was receiving heavy pressure from the highest levels of Justice to cut Stone a break.”
Zelinsky did not say who he thought was exerting the pressure. But he said supervisors told him that Shea gave Stone favorable treatment “because he was afraid of the president.”
One of the supervisors said accommodating political pressures was unethical and wrong, Zelinsky said, but “we were instructed that we should go along with the U.S. attorney’s instructions because this case ‘was not the hill worth dying on’ and that we could ‘lose our jobs’ if we did not toe the line.”
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced Stone to three years, four months in prison for lying to Congress about his efforts to discover what WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange planned to do with emails associated with Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign that were hacked by the Russians. She denied Stone’s motion for a new trial, rejecting his claim that a juror was biased against him.
Zelinsky and the other career prosecutors initially recommended a sentence of seven to nine years. But Barr intervened and directed the government to submit a new court filing, saying a three- to four-year sentence would be “more line with the typical sentences” in similar cases. The reversal came hours after Trump tweeted that the original sentencing recommendation was “a horrible and very unfair situation.”
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Barr insisted that he acted on his own and had been unaware of the president’s tweet until after he directed the change. In a television interview, he said the president’s tweets were making it harder for him to do his job.
Stone was ordered to report to a federal prison in Georgia on June 30. But his lawyers asked the judge Tuesday to postpone his voluntary reporting date to Sept. 3 “in light of his heightened risk of serious medical consequences from exposure to the COVID-19 virus in the close confines” of a prison. The Justice Department does not oppose the postponement, his lawyers said.
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent who covers the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, based in Washington.