Trump hails Barr for ‘taking charge’ of Stone case; Democrats vow probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday praised Attorney General William Barr for “taking charge” of the case against his long-time adviser and friend Roger Stone, as Democrats pushed investigations into the Justice Department’s actions.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General William Barr arrives for U.S. President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 4, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis/POOL

The Justice Department on Tuesday reversed course and urged a lighter sentence for Stone after prosecutors a day earlier recommended that the veteran Republican operative face sentencing within federal guidelines of seven to nine years.

The highly unusual move, which came hours after Trump complained about the recommended sentence on Twitter, prompted all four U.S. prosecutors to quit the case and Democrats to accuse Barr of political interference ahead of next week’s scheduled sentencing.

Trump later told reporters that he did not discuss Stone’s case with the department but called the sentencing recommendation “ridiculous.” A senior Justice Department official called the timing of Trump’s initial tweet and the department’s actions a coincidence.

“Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought,” Trump tweeted early Wednesday. Trump also targeted the judge in the case and the outgoing prosecutors in other tweets late Tuesday, and retweeted a post that urged a full pardon of Stone as well as another former Trump adviser, Michael Flynn.

Legal experts called the department’s intervention after filing a formal recommendation highly unusual. While some experts said the initial recommendation appeared severe, the original prosecutors said they were in line with “the seriousness of” Stone’s crimes.

Democrats and other critics accused Barr of political interference in what has typically been an independent judiciary and warned of grave consequences.

“Do not underestimate the danger of this situation,” tweeted Eric Holder, former Democratic President Barack Obama’s attorney general. “This affects the rule of law and respect for it. Unprecedented.”

In Congress, House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler said he would probe the reversal, while Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer asked the Justice Department’s internal watchdog to investigate.

“It is outrageous that DOJ has deeply damaged the rule of law by withdrawing its recommendation. Stepping down of prosecutors should be commended & actions of DOJ should be investigated,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday night.

Stone is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 20 after being found guilty in November on seven counts of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering stemming from the government investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Stone and Flynn, Trump’s former White House national security adviser, were among a number of Trump associates who were found or pleaded guilty in U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, which Trump has called a “witch hunt.”

Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, has sought to withdraw his plea after initially cooperating with the government. Prosecutors in that case have also shifted their sentencing recommendations in recent weeks, from up to six months in prison to probation.

On Tuesday, the department said the initial recommendation for Stone filed on Monday was “excessive and unwarranted” but did not offer a new specific sentencing recommendation.

Trump also withdrew the nomination of Jessie Liu, a former U.S. attorney in Washington whose office prosecuted Stone, for a new post in the Treasury Department, according to a source familiar with the matter. Liu had been scheduled to appear publicly before the Senate on Thursday.

The president’s actions come one week after the Republican-led Senate’s acquittal in his impeachment trial over charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress over his handling of Ukraine.

Few Republicans have publicly commented on the Stone case.

Several Senate Democrats have called on Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham to investigate the matter. Representatives for Graham, a staunch Trump ally, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Morgan; Editing by Nick Macfie and Nick Zieminski

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