WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s allies expect he could pardon or commute the sentence of Roger Stone within the next few days if his longtime friend is forced to report to prison on Tuesday as scheduled. But some of them are concerned such a move could further damage the president politically when he’s already facing headwinds less than four months before the November election.
Trump, who has been sharply critical of Stone’s case, on Friday said he’s considering using his executive clemency powers to keep his friend out of prison.
“I’ll be looking at it,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I think Roger Stone was very unfairly treated.”
Stone has said he’s praying Trump intervenes. On Thursday, Trump told radio host Howie Carr “his prayer may be answered.”
“He’s a good person, he’s a character, but he’s a really good person.”
Stone has been ordered to report to a federal minimum security prison in Georgia by July 14, but he is asking a federal appeals court for a 51-day delay to postpone his reporting date to Sept. 3 because of concerns about coronavirus. Given that he is 67 and has health problems, his lawyers told the appeals court last week, “he is at considerable risk from serious health consequences, including death, if his surrender date is not extended.”
That ruling is expected before Tuesday. If Stone is granted a delay, that could postpone any immediate action from the president.
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While the Justice Department originally supported Stone’s request for the trial judge, Amy Berman Jackson, to grant him a postponement, it said her decision delaying his reporting date only until mid-July was a reasonable one. The government therefore on Thursday urged the appeals court to deny Stone’s latest request for a delay until September.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said Thursday the president’s decision to take executive action on Stone’s case “becomes more important to make in the in the coming days if we’re going to keep Roger Stone, who is advancing in age and health, from reporting despite the Justice Department’s opinion.”
On Friday, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, played down any political blowback intervention from Trump might cause.
“I don’t know that most voters are paying attention to that particular issue and will go to the ballot box based on that,” she told reporters at the White House. “I’ll let the president make any announcement on that he has on any type of pardon or commutation sentence for anyone.”
Trump has made clear in multiple statements over the past week that he could do either at any time. Some of his advisers have cautioned that voters might disapprove of the president using his executive powers to help a friend, particularly when doing so would go against the recommendation of his own Justice Department.
But they also said the president takes Stone’s case personally and is sympathetic to his health concerns.
“He has a big heart,” one of them said.
Stone, in an interview on SiriusXM Thursday, likened reporting to jail next week to the “death penalty” and said he’s hopeful Trump will intervene.
“I have grave concerns that if I went there at my age and condition, I may not live to see my appeal a year from now,” Stone said, adding he believes the president would be more inclined to commute his sentence than issue a full pardon.
Stone’s lawyers said the Georgia prison where Stone is to serve his 40-month sentence is in quarantine after six inmates and five staff members tested positive for the coronavirus.
“The dangers from COVID-19 in the prison system are largely unabated and, in fact, appear to be increasing,” they said. Denying his request to postpone his prison reporting date would also be at odds with Attorney General William Barr’s directive allowing the reassignment or home detention of non-violent prisoners at heightened risk of illness from the virus, they said.
Stone is also appealing the trial judge’s denial of his motion for a new trial, which is based on a claim of juror bias.
He said Thursday if his sentence is commuted, “I would still have to battle it out on appeal, which frankly I want to do, because I want an opportunity to clear my name.”
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent who covers the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, based in Washington.