Roger Stone is a friend of Trump – does that mean he's above the law?

Tom McCarthy in New York
Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

Any other convict, in Roger Stone’s place, might find cause for despair.

Sentenced by judge Amy Berman Jackson to 40 months in federal prison on Thursday, Stone, 67, the piratical politico, was also on the receiving end of a stern rebuke for making threatening social media posts during the trial and for generally acting as if the rules did not apply to him.

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“This is intolerable to the administration of justice,” Jackson told Stone, “and the court cannot sit idly by, shrug its shoulders and say, ‘That’s just Roger being Roger’.”

Stone was sentenced for lying to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks in 2016 and witness tampering in an effort to shield Trump. But Stone, who likes to dress up as the Joker, has a major ace up his sleeve, and everyone knows it. He is a friend of Donald Trump, and in the United States in 2020, legal observers say, that appears to be enough to seriously diminish, if not destroy, the binding force of the law.

“Mr Trump doesn’t believe that his friends, and people he personally likes or who he feels can somehow serve his interests – he doesn’t feel they should be treated the same as everybody else,” said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor in the eastern district of New York. “Friends of the president get special treatment, and people who aren’t friends of the president don’t.

“And I expect that Mr Stone will, sooner or later, get his pardon.”

Trump has been on a post-impeachment spree of testing the limits on his power when it comes to manipulating the US criminal justice system, in the judgment of numerous former justice department officials – and he hasn’t found any yet.

Since his acquittal by Senate Republicans on 5 February, Trump has taken steps to prosecute his political opponents; initiated reviews of his allies’ criminal cases; attacked Jackson, a juror, and prosecutors tied to the Stone case; and proclaimed himself “the chief law enforcement officer of the country”.

Trump also this week issued pardons and commutations to nearly a dozen convicts with almost exactly Stone’s profile: ageing white men with personal ties to Trump found guilty of public corruption.

Trump is putting the Department of Justice through a historic stress test it might not recover from, numerous former justice department officials warned.

“The Department of Justice has been, at least during my adult lifetime, sort of this independent, executive branch office that worked really hard to, for the most part, keep itself separate from the politics of the executive itself,” said Wendy Olson, a former US attorney for the district of Idaho appointed by Barack Obama.

“But I think we’re in a very perilous moment in the role of the Department of Justice in the United States, to figure out if that’s going to continue to be what the Department of Justice is going to be, going forward.”

Stone is only the most recent, visible face of Trump’s efforts to erase the supposed boundaries guarding justice department independence.

Trump is giving grants to the politically connected and the wealthy – people who are the least in need of this power

Rachel Barkow

On Tuesday, Trump announced acts of presidential clemency for 11 federal convicts, including the former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, the former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and the former junk bond king Michael Milken. Each case was a pet cause of Trump campaign donors or intimates such as Sheldon Adelson and Rudy Giuliani.

“The problem is that Trump is giving grants to the politically connected and the wealthy – people who are the least in need of this power,” Rachel Barkow, a New York University law school professor and clemency expert, said in an email.

“It’s a list of political cronies, big donors and people with friends in high places. You don’t see the regular people who need a pardon so they can get an occupational license. And the crimes themselves overwhelmingly involve fraud and corruption and white collar offenses, even though most of the people with federal convictions have them for drug offenses.”

The pardons followed Trump’s intervention in the Stone case in the form of a tweet calling prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation “a horrible and very unfair situation”. The attorney general, William Barr, caused the recommendation to be changed, prompting a call for his resignation from more than 2,600 former justice department officials.

Jan Miller, a former US attorney for central Illinois appointed by George W Bush, said that Barr’s intervention in the Stone case after Trump’s tweet had called justice department independence into question.

“It’s hard for me to believe that it would not be causing a tremendous amount of stress for line prosecutors and US attorney’s offices around the country,” Miller said.

“When you move a line on something like this, it becomes dangerous, potentially. I’m not one of those people who say the sky is falling, and this is all going to come crashing down now, but you do worry about the lasting effect that it has both on the institution and the people within it.”

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Stone does not face immediate imprisonment. He has moved for a retrial, and he separately was expected to appeal his sentence, in a process that could take months.

Trump indicated on Thursday that he did not plan on pardoning Stone immediately, but as he did so he launched yet another attack on the criminal justice system, saying, “this has not been a fair process”.

“I want the process play out, I think that’s the best thing to do,” Trump said. “Because I’d love to see Roger exonerated, and I’d love to see it happen because I personally think he was treated very unfairly.”

There will be no exoneration for Stone, who was convicted by a jury of his peers on seven felony counts. But his friend the president may well help him avoid prison time, Cotter said.

“Certainly, unfortunately, everything the president has done over the last several months – but especially the last week-and-a-half,” Cotter said, “strongly suggests that a pardon will eventually arrive.”