WHITE HOUSE – U.S. President Donald Trump is denying intervention in his own government’s sentencing recommendation for a political confidant convicted of lying to Congress.
“I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn’t believe,” Trump replied to a reporter in the Oval Office on Tuesday afternoon. “I didn’t speak to them. I thought the recommendation was ridiculous. I thought the whole prosecution was ridiculous … an insult to our country.”
Federal prosecutors the previous day had recommended a prison sentence of seven to nine years for Roger Stone, a Trump associate who faced charges stemming from then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In a tweet earlier Tuesday, Trump had called that recommendation a “miscarriage of justice” and later in the day the Justice Department told the court in a filing that its initial recommendation “could be considered excessive and unwarranted.”
That reversal had critics crying foul and throwing the Justice Department into crisis — with all four prosecutors withdrawing from the legal proceedings.
The president declined to comment when asked by reporters whether he was considering issuing a pardon for Stone.
“I don’t want to talk about that now,” replied Trump.
Justice Department officials said they were taken aback by the recommendation for the lengthy term for the political trickster, who was convicted of seven charges in November, including lying to Congress and threatening a witness in his case.
Stone is set to be sentenced in Washington next week.
The Justice Department said it made the decision to ask for a shorter sentence for Stone on Monday night — before Trump’s tweet about the case in the wee hours of Tuesday — although it was not announced until hours after Trump made the remark on Twitter.
In politically charged Washington, the shorter sentence recommendation immediately raised new questions about Trump’s influence over the Justice Department, which is meant to operate independently and without political favor in criminal cases and investigations.
A watchdog group, Restore Public Trust, is calling for a congressional investigation and for the Justice Department’s inspector general to find out if political interference played a role in changing the sentencing recommendation.
“President Trump’s interference into the Department of Justice for political reasons is a betrayal to our democracy,” Lizzy Price, director of Restore Public Trust, said in a statement.
Senator Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the chamber, immediately sent a letter to the Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz formally requesting an investigation into the reduced sentencing recommendation.
The chairman of the intelligence committee in the House, which is controlled by the Democrats, said if Trump intervened to reverse the sentencing recommendation it would be a blatant abuse of power.
“Doing so would send an unmistakable message that President Trump will protect those who lie to Congress to cover up his own misconduct, and that the Attorney General will join him in that effort,” said Congressman Adam Schiff. “Coupled with the President’s blatant retaliation against those who helped expose his wrongdoing, the Trump administration poses the gravest threat to the rule of law in America in a generation.”
Stone’s political skullduggery on behalf of Republican candidates dates to the 1960s. Among other offenses, he was convicted of lying to Congress about his attempts to find out about hacked Democratic emails during the election four years ago that were aimed at undermining the candidacy of Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent.
Prosecutors had said in their original filing on Monday that the seven-to-nine-year sentence recommended for the 67-year-old Stone was “consistent with the applicable” federal sentencing guidelines, and “would accurately reflect the seriousness of his crimes and promote respect for the law.”
Stone’s lawyers are calling for probation, pointing to their client’s age and lack of a criminal history.
Stone is one of the more colorful figures in American politics. He proudly sports a tattoo on his back of former President Richard Nixon, the only U.S. leader to ever resign, leaving office in 1974 in the midst of the Watergate political scandal just ahead of his certain impeachment in the House of Representatives.
VOA’s Ken Bredemeier contributed to this story.