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Questions over Trump role in reduced sentence for top ally


Court drama: Roger Stone, former adviser to US President Donald Trump. Photo: Getty Images

Court drama: Roger Stone, former adviser to US President Donald Trump. Photo: Getty Images

AFP via Getty Images

Court drama: Roger Stone, former adviser to US President Donald Trump. Photo: Getty Images

The four lawyers who prosecuted US President Donald Trump's long-time ally Roger Stone have resigned.

The dramatic move came after the US Justice Department overruled them and said it would take the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek for Mr Trump's confidant.

The departures raised immediate questions over whether Mr Trump, who earlier in the day had blasted the original sentencing recommendation as "very horrible and unfair", had at least indirectly exerted his will on a Justice Department that he often views as an arm of the White House.

The department insisted the decision to undo the sentencing recommendation was made Monday night - before Mr Trump's tweet - and prosecutors had not spoken to the White House about it. Even so, the departures of the entire trial team broke open a simmering dispute over the punishment of a Trump ally whose case has long captured the Republican president's attention. The episode was the latest to entangle the Justice Department, meant to operate free from White House sway in criminal investigations and prosecutions, in presidential politics.

The four attorneys, including two who were early members of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia team, comprised the entire Justice Department trial team that won convictions against Stone last fall.

Each had signed onto a Monday sentencing memo that recommended between seven and nine years in prison for Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign co-ordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election. None lent their names to a Tuesday memo that called the original recommendation excessive.

The departures leave in limbo the resolution of a case that was one of the signature prosecutions of Mueller's team and that cut to the heart of his mission - to determine whether the Trump team had access to non-public information about Democratic emails hacked by Russian operatives and provided to WikiLeaks.

Mr Trump was back on the attack late Tuesday, slamming the original sentencing recommendation and questioning the judge overseeing the Stone case. And by early yesterday, he had tweeted a congratulations to Attorney General William Barr "for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have been brought", suggesting the prosecutors had gone rogue.

Mr Barr, the Justice Department's leader, has been a steady ally of the president's since taking the position. Mr Barr last year cleared the president of obstruction of justice even when Mr Mueller had pointedly declined to do so, and has declared that the FBI's Russia investigation, which resulted in charges against Stone, had been based on a "bogus narrative".

It's unclear what sentence the department will ultimately seek.

A Justice Department official said authorities decided to step in and seek a shorter sentence because they had been taken by surprise by the initial recommendation. The person, who was not authorised to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said prosecutors had told the department to expect a recommendation for a shorter sentence.

In their revised sentencing memo, Justice Department officials argued the initial recommendation could be "considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances" but also said they would defer to the court.

It is extremely rare for Justice Department leaders to reverse the decision of its own prosecutors. A mass exodus from a case is also rare, though the tumult did conjure an episode from last summer when Justice Department lawyers abruptly left a lawsuit over whether a citizenship question could be added to the census.

Irish Independent