Does the Roger Stone fight hurt the Justice Department’s credibility?

Does the Roger Stone fight hurt the Justice Department’s credibility?


JUDY WOODRUFF: Ultimately, it’s for a judge
to decide, but the wrangling in the U.S. Justice Department over how much jail time a convicted
Trump confidant should receive has led to a second straight day of turmoil. Yamiche Alcindor begins there. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Today, outrage on Capitol
Hill over the Justice Department’s new sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone. SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): What is more swampy,
what is more fetid, what is more stinking than the most powerful person in the country
literally changing the rules to benefit a crony guilty of breaking the law? YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Congressional Democrats
aren’t alone. Yesterday, four career prosecutors withdrew
from the case, seemingly in protest. The problem? The DOJ decided to reject their recommendation
of a seven-to-nine-year prison sentence for Stone. The president sounded off from the Oval Office
today during a meeting with the president of Ecuador. DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States:
He was treated very badly. Nine years recommended by four people that perhaps they were Mueller
people. I don’t know who they were, prosecutors. It’s a disgrace. And, frankly, they ought
to apologize to a lot of the people whose lives they have ruined. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Stone, a longtime friend
and adviser of President Trump, was found guilty last November of seven charges, including
witness tampering and lying to Congress. The charges all relate to Russian meddling
in the 2016 election. Critics of President Trump say he unfairly interfered in the case
to help a friend. This morning, White House Deputy Press Secretary
Hogan Gidley denied any interference. He also defended the president’s right to voice his
opinions on the case. HOGAN GIDLEY, White House Deputy Press Secretary:
The president didn’t have a conversation with the attorney general at all, but he has the
right to do it. Just because someone happens to be wrapped
up in a 2.5-year investigation that cost the taxpayers $40 million doesn’t mean the president
doesn’t have a right to comment on it, whether he knows them or not. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Senate Minority Leader Chuck
Schumer called on the Judiciary Committee to conduct an emergency hearing on the case.
A judge today also rejected a request from Stone for a new trial. His sentencing hearing
is scheduled for next week. Now, are the Justice Department’s moves justified,
or is the agency crossing a line? Mary McCord served for nearly 20 years in
the office that prosecuted the case against Roger Stone. She later became the department’s
top national security official. She’s now with Georgetown University’s Law Center. And
James Trusty, he was previously a federal prosecutor in Maryland, before becoming chief
of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime section. He’s now in private practice. Thanks to both of you for being here. Mary McCord, I’m going to start with you. What do you make of what’s happening surrounding
the sentencing of Roger Stone? And what do you think it might do to the credibility of
the Justice Department? MARY MCCORD, Georgetown University Law Center:
Well, I think this causes really lasting damage to the credibility and reputation of the Justice
Department. The prosecutors here signed a sentencing memorandum
with a recommendation in it, and the judiciary is entitled to rely on those representations,
as the voice of the Department of Justice in this criminal case. And under department policy, in any high-profile
case, decisions such as sentencing go all the way up the flagpole. Right? So this would
have been discussed with the deputy attorney general’s office, the attorney general’s office
before any recommendation was made. So to have that then pulled back and undermined,
and a new filing come the next day, is very unprecedented and hard to explain, other than
it being in response to the president’s tweets and the president’s displeasure and dissatisfaction
with the recommended sentence. And so that fact, in and of itself, really
harms the credibility of the Justice Department, in the eyes of the court, but also in the
eyes, I think, of the American people. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: James, what do you make
of what she’s saying? She’s saying — she’s saying that this could
harm the agency’s credibility? Is the DOJ immune to politicization? JAMES TRUSTY, Former Federal Prosecutor: Well,
that’s what you want, right? I mean, you want a system where it is an apolitical entity. But you also have to keep in mind that the
president and the attorney general can be chummy as it gets. You had one president who
picked his brother to be the attorney general. The question is whether that relationship
and any conversation they have trickles down in some untoward way, whether that somehow
jeopardizes the notion of pursuing small-J justice that they’re all supposed to have. And I think, when you really look at this
case, although it’s playing out openly, which creates a real circus, right, and all sorts
of political aspects to that, but the real narrow issue is what’s fair in the case of
this guy named Stone. And a lot of people look at the guideline
calculations that started this off and said, wow, they’re really going hard to come up
with a seven-, eight-, nine-year range, instead of something like two or three or four. And that’s — there’s a very narrow factual
dispute underneath it all that really drives the guidelines, which drives that recommendation. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Sticking with you, President
Trump has called these prosecutors Mueller people, referring to Robert Mueller, the former
special counsel — special prosecutor. That being said, four prosecutors seemingly
resigned in protest. How unusual is this? JAMES TRUSTY: That’s very unusual. Look, no matter what the actual merits are
at the end of the day — and we don’t really know yet — we know that four prosecutors
felt very strongly. I think one or two left the Department of Justice. One just said,
I’m going to head back up to Baltimore, where I have been working. So it’s not quite the
same level of sacrifice. But there’s clearly a communication break
here. There’s clearly problems in terms of the line attorneys, the supervisors, and maybe
crossing over to DOJ main Justice. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Mary McCord, I want to go
to you for a sort of hypothetical that some people think actually happened, which is,
what if President Trump did call on Attorney General — Attorney General Barr and say,
my friend is being possibly sentenced, can you please lower that sentencing recommendation? And then the Department of Justice, possibly,
again, an attorney general, says, yes. Because the president’s friend is facing this, we’re
going to lower our sentencing. Is first the president’s call illegal? And
is the Department of Justice responding to the president illegal? MARY MCCORD: It’s not. As Jim said, there’s — the attorney general
and the president can be as chummy as they want. In fact, the attorney general is an
executive branch official who reports directly to the president. But, historically, and for very good reason,
both the Department of Justice and the White House have had strict policies that bar in
most circumstances communications between the White House and the Department of Justice
about individual decisions in individual cases. And the reason for that is to maintain the
independence of the Department of Justice to assure the American people that that department
is not just the arm of the president to — for him to wield however he wants for his political
purposes, particularly when we’re talking about criminal prosecutions which come out
of the Department of Justice, but to be able to establish that we maintain this type of
independence. And when that’s broken down, whether it’s
through actual direct phone calls or conversations or through publicly making statements, as
the president has done, really excoriating the recommendation and calling on DOJ leadership
to do something about it, and then, of course, thanking them for doing something about it,
either way, that sort of violates these internal guidance that are there for good reasons. And I would just — if I may, just — I would
quarrel a little bit, I think, with Jim saying the narrow — that the issue here is the sentence. I think that’s — reasonable minds can differ
about whether a sentence in the guideline range of seven to nine years is too harsh
for this conduct. And I’m sure reasonable minds, in the consultations, did differ about
that. To me, what is so dramatic and outrageous
about this case is the fact that the department appeared to have responded to a direct — either
direct or indirect request from the president to change a recommendation, so that he could
do a favor to one of his personal friends and someone who had gone out in the 2016 campaign
and really welcomed foreign interference in our election. That’s to me the real story here. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Part of what Mary McCord
was just talking about was the president’s public statements. I want to point to one of them. He’s been
going after Judge Amy Berman Jackson. I want to put up a tweet that he sent out. She is
the judge that is ultimately going to sentence Roger Stone. He tweeted: “Is this the judge that put Paul
Manafort in solitary confinement, something that not even mobster Al Capone had to endure?
How did she treat crooked Hillary Clinton? Just asking.” Now, Paul Manafort was a former chairman of
the president’s 2016 campaign. He’s now in federal prison for unrelated crimes that have
to do with finances. But the question is, should a president be
going after a judge? The American Bar Association says that that’s not the right thing for public
officials to be doing. What do you make of that, James? JAMES TRUSTY: Well, look, Mary, I was in — I
have been in the criminal justice system for a long time, 27 years as a prosecutor, three
in private practice. And it always feels unseemly. It’s never a
happy moment to see criticism of a judge. All of us have had tough cases, tough trials,
where we get frustrated, and say, we got the wrong call or the wrong result. And what you do is, you go home in the backyard
and you mutter to yourself and drink a beer and get over it. So it’s a very different platform, obviously,
when a president has the opportunity to personally criticize these judges. Look, he’s got a lot of legitimate, I think,
frustration in terms of the last few years. But calling out judges by name is not particularly
helpful for the criminal justice system or the respect that other people will have for
the system, which is what we all worry about. YAMICHE ALCINDOR: And, of course, as you mentioned,
this isn’t the first time a president — that President Trump has gone after a judge. But thank you so much to both of you for being
here, Mary McCord and James Trusty. I really appreciate it. JAMES TRUSTY: Sure. Thanks. MARY MCCORD: Thank you, Yamiche.

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