In commuting Roger Stone’s prison sentence, President Donald Trump and the White House gave a misleading account of Stone’s conviction and the federal investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
In November, a jury found Stone guilty of obstructing a congressional investigation, five counts of making false statements to Congress and tampering with a witness. All of the counts were related to a House intelligence committee investigation that ran parallel with a separate investigation by the Department of Justice.
A key line of inquiry in the House investigation was WikiLeaks’ public release of documents stolen by Russian intelligence officers that were damaging to the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and whether the Trump campaign had "advanced knowledge of or access to stolen information."
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"A jury later determined [Stone] lied repeatedly to members of Congress," special counsel Robert Mueller wrote in a July 11 opinion piece for the Washington Post, defending his office’s prosecution of Stone. "He lied about the identity of his intermediary to WikiLeaks. He lied about the existence of written communications with his intermediary. He lied by denying he had communicated with the Trump campaign about the timing of WikiLeaks’ releases. He in fact updated senior campaign officials repeatedly about WikiLeaks. And he tampered with a witness, imploring him to stonewall Congress."
Here we review a July 10 statement issued by the White House press secretary about Stone’s case and subsequent statements made by the president.
Russia Investigation Was Not ‘Absolutely Baseless’
In its statement, the White House falsely described the special counsel’s investigation as "absolutely baseless."
"Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency," the statement read. "There was never any collusion between the Trump Campaign, or the Trump Administration, with Russia."
It went on to say: "The simple fact is that if the Special Counsel had not been pursuing an absolutely baseless investigation, Mr. Stone would not be facing time in prison."
There was ample evidence to justify opening an investigation — even if the investigation "did not establish that the Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities," as Mueller’s report said.
As we wrote, the FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation on July 31, 2016, into whether individuals associated with the Trump campaign were coordinating with the Russian government based on information from a "Friendly Foreign Government," according to the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General report on the origins of the investigation.
George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, told the foreign official that "the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist … with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton," the report said.
In his op-ed, Mueller explained why the FBI opened its investigation at that time.
"By late 2016, the FBI had evidence that the Russians had signaled to a Trump campaign adviser that they could assist the campaign through the anonymous release of information damaging to the Democratic candidate," Mueller explained. "And the FBI knew that the Russians had done just that: Beginning in July 2016, WikiLeaks released emails stolen by Russian military intelligence officers from the Clinton campaign."
Mueller called Russia’s actions "a threat to America’s democracy" and said it was "critical that they be investigated and understood."
The inspector general’s report said the investigation "was opened for an authorized investigative purpose and with sufficient factual predication."
After opening the investigation, the FBI found other contacts between Trump campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government. On June 3, 2016, for example, Donald Trump Jr. received an email promising information damaging to the Clinton campaign as "part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump." Trump Jr. responded by saying, "[I]f it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer," and attended the meeting in question with a Russian lawyer and others in Trump Tower on June 9.
Jared Kushner, who was a campaign adviser to his father-in-law at the time, issued a statement a year later to congressional investigators that said "there was no follow up to the meeting that I am aware of."
In the end, the Mueller report "established multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government," but it "did not establish that the Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities."
The investigation was not "baseless."
No Evidence of ‘Malice’ Toward Stone
The White House statement also claimed — without evidence — that Stone’s conviction was the "product of recklessness borne of frustration and malice."
"As it became clear that these witch hunts would never bear fruit, the Special Counsel’s Office resorted to process-based charges leveled at high-profile people in an attempt to manufacture the false impression of criminality lurking below the surface," the statement reads. "These charges were the product of recklessness borne of frustration and malice. This is why the out-of-control Mueller prosecutors, desperate for splashy headlines to compensate for a failed investigation, set their sights on Mr. Stone."
In his op-ed, Mueller said there were "two key reasons" why Stone was investigated.
"He communicated in 2016 with individuals known to us to be Russian intelligence officers, and he claimed advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ release of emails stolen by those Russian intelligence officers," Mueller wrote.
According to a Feb. 10 sentencing memo, Stone made at least five public statements from Aug. 8, 2016, to Aug. 18, 2016, that indicated he had a source connected to Assange. The House intelligence committee asked Stone to name the person he was referring to in those early- to mid-August statements, but he gave the committee the wrong name and then pressured that person to lie to the committee, too.
On July 11, Trump retweeted a baseless claim that Stone “committed no crime” and “was framed by Mueller.” Similarly, the White House claims Mueller’s office manufactured “process-based charges.”
Mueller and the Department of Justice have repeatedly explained why lying to federal or congressional investigators is serious business.
Mueller last year said lying to federal investigators "strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable," particularly in a case of such "paramount importance."
In his op-ed, Mueller said that is true of lying to congressional investigators.
"Russian efforts to interfere in our political system, and the essential question of whether those efforts involved the Trump campaign, required investigation," Mueller wrote in the op-ed. "In that investigation, it was critical for us (and, before us, the FBI) to obtain full and accurate information. Likewise, it was critical for Congress to obtain accurate information from its witnesses."
On Feb. 10, the Department of Justice recommended that Stone serve a sentence ranging from 87 months to 108 months, or roughly seven to nine years, saying "[o]bstructing such critical investigations … strikes at the very heart of our American democracy." Trump objected to the sentencing recommendation, and a day later the department filed an updated sentencing recommendation memo that left the decision up to the judge — prompting some federal prosecutors to withdraw from the case.
Trump praised Attorney General William Barr in a Feb. 12 tweet "for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought."
But even Barr recently described the prosecution of Stone as "righteous."
"I think the prosecution was righteous," Barr said in an ABC News interview on July 8. "And — I think the sentence that the judge ultimately gave — was fair."
No Evidence of ‘Spying’ on Trump Campaign
A day after his decision to grant Stone clemency, Trump tweeted — without evidence — that former President Barack Obama and his vice president, Joe Biden, "spied on my campaign – AND GOT CAUGHT!"
The president reiterated that claim when speaking to reporters that same day when he was asked about Stone.
"Take a look at Biden, Sleepy Joe. Take a look at Obama," Trump said. "And they spied on Donald Trump’s campaign. Those are the people — let me just tell you something: Those are the people that should be in trouble."
The inspector general’s report released in December focused on the origins of the investigation, but it found no evidence of illegal "spying" — either before or after the FBI opened the investigation, known as Crossfire Hurricane, on July 31, 2016.
The report said that the Crossfire Hurricane team conducted an "initial analysis of links between Trump campaign members and Russia," and then opened four individual cases in August 2016 — on Trump campaign associates Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. The IG report reviewed the department’s handling of those four cases.
"We found no evidence that the FBI used CHSs [confidential human sources] or UCEs [undercover employees] to interact with members of the Trump campaign prior to the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation," the report said. "After the opening of the investigation, we found no evidence that the FBI placed any CHSs or UCEs within the Trump campaign or tasked any CHSs or UCEs to report on the Trump campaign."
The report said the interactions between the Trump campaign aides and the FBI’s confidential sources "received the necessary FBI approvals" and were "consensually monitored and recorded by the FBI."
In the case of Carter Page, a former campaign foreign policy adviser, the FBI used the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to obtain four court-approved warrants to surveil Page, beginning in October 2016.
The IG’s reported cited at least 17 "significant inaccuracies and omissions" in court applications for Page’s warrant – which Trump has cited in the past as evidence of political bias. But the IG report said it was unable to document any bias in the mishandling of Page’s FISA applications.
"We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the FBI’s decision to seek FISA authority on Carter Page," the report said.
Unanimous Jury Conviction
The White House statement also charged that the forewoman of Stone’s jury had "concealed the fact that she is a member of the so-called liberal ‘resistance’ to the Trump Presidency."
"Not only was Mr. Stone charged by overzealous prosecutors pursing a case that never should have existed, and arrested in an operation that never should have been approved, but there were also serious questions about the jury in the case," the statement said. "The forewoman of his jury, for example, concealed the fact that she is a member of the so-called liberal ‘resistance’ to the Trump Presidency. In now-deleted tweets, this activist-juror vividly and openly attacked President Trump and his supporters."
Stone’s lawyers argued that their client should receive a new trial because social media posts by the jury forewoman suggested she had hidden a bias toward Stone when she filled out a questionnaire and was questioned in court before the jury was selected. Judge Amy Berman Jackson denied the request.
The judge wrote that "while the social media communications may suggest that the juror has strong opinions about certain people or issues" — in this case, a negative opinion of Trump — "they do not reveal that she had an opinion about Roger Stone, which is the opinion that matters."
Judge Jackson, April 16: The assumption underlying the motion – that one can infer from the juror’s opinions about the President that she could not fairly consider the evidence against the defendant is not supported by any facts or data and it is contrary to controlling legal precedent. The motion is a tower of indignation but at the end of the day, there is little of substance holding it up. Therefore, the request for a new trial will be denied based on the facts and the case law set out in detail in the body of this opinion, and which are summarized briefly here.
The judge also said the defense had not shown that the forewoman, Tomeka Hart, lied when questioned before being seated. And she said the posts could easily have been found before the trial.
After the Stone prosecutors withdrew from the case on Feb. 12 in protest of the Justice Department overruling their sentencing recommendation, the foreperson defended them on Facebook. She came under fire from Trump after other social media comments critical of Trump surfaced.
Trump, Feb. 23: Well, I’ve seen a very sad thing going on with respect to Roger Stone. You have a juror that’s obviously tainted. She was an activist against Trump. Said bad things about Trump and said bad things about Stone.
We note, however, that criminal cases require unanimous verdicts for conviction. One of Stone’s jurors, Seth Cousins, wrote in the Washington Post on Nov. 22, 2019, that the conviction was based on the facts, not on politics.
"Let me be clear: We did not convict Stone based on his political beliefs or his expression of those beliefs," Cousins wrote, adding that the "evidence in this case was substantial and almost entirely uncontested."
"Our unanimous conclusion was this: The truth matters. Telling the truth under oath matters."