It’s easy to get lost in the details of the scandal now roiling the Justice Department, easy to get caught in the minutiae of federal sentencing guidelines or the zany conspiracy theories that now surround the obvious and proven crimes committed by Roger Stone, one of President Trump’s least successful grifters.
U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson cut to the heart of the matter Thursday when she sentenced Stone to more than three years in prison, declaring, “The truth still exists. The truth still matters.” And it does.
First of all, Stone is not a victim. He is certainly nothing like the thousands of prisoners sitting today in penitentiaries who would benefit from the sort of prosecutorial charity Attorney General William Barr offered last week in reducing Stone’s sentencing recommendation. Stone was caught red-handed lying to Congress and then caught trying to obstruct justice by impeding the testimony of a witness who would have exposed his lies. He was convicted by a jury following a fair trial in which he was ably represented.
If that were all Stone had done it would have been enough to justify a significant prison sentence. But while his case was pending, he demonstrated his lack of remorse by threatening Jackson by posting a picture of her with crosshairs on it, as if she were or ought to be a target of gun violence. The idea that a defendant could make such a threat and then earn leniency from the Justice Department is part of the reason why the Federal Judges Association held an emergency conference call this week to discuss Trump’s continuing attacks on judges whose decisions he dislikes. The truth still matters to them.
So Stone will go to prison soon, unless the president intercedes with the pardon he’s been hinting at for months. “He has not been prosecuted by his adversaries or anyone else’s adversaries,” Jackson said of Stone before she sentenced him. “He was not prosecuted by anyone to gain political advantage.”
Of course he wasn’t. Nor was Barr “vindicated” by Stone’s sentence. It was less than what prosecutors sought and more than the defense wanted — just like virtually every other sentence handed down by a judge.
The truth still matters. The truth about the Justice Department’s descent into political corruption still matters, too, now that another chapter in the Stone saga has ended. There are dozens of questions left unanswered by the misconduct of the attorney general and the president, who have no valid arguments justifying their ongoing efforts to turn the Justice Department into a sword against the president’s political opponents and a shield benefiting the president’s friends. What’s happening now at the Justice Department is a clear and present danger to the administration of justice in America that shows no sign of ending.
Jackson raised some of these questions Thursday and answered others. But who will ensure that more answers follow? House Democrats say that the attorney general will appear on Capitol Hill at the end of March to answer questions, but there is no guarantee that he will show up or, if he does, that he will answer fully or candidly.
The truth still matters to all four of Stone’s trial prosecutors, who quit the case or resigned from the Justice Department outright last week because their bosses had signed off on Stone’s original sentencing recommendation and then Barr came back and undercut them all, seemingly at the president’s behest.
The truth still matters to the more than 2,000 former federal prosecutors who have signed an open letter demanding that Barr resign because of his role in the Stone scandal. These protesters didn’t go on the record in this fashion because of some petty disagreement over the scope of the federal sentencing guidelines.
These former prosecutors, who served under from Republican and Democratic administrations, are protesting as loudly as they are because they see Barr’s misconduct in the Stone case — and his recent move to interfere in the case of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn — as complicity in the president’s authoritarian approach to justice itself.
Trump himself has only strengthened that argument in the week since that open letter became public, now he’s railing against the jury foreperson in the Stone case and declaring falsely that he, not Barr, is the nation’s chief law enforcement official.
The truth still matters, Jackson said, and that “Roger Stone’s insistence that it doesn’t, his belligerence, his pride in his own lies are a threat to … our democracy.” She could have said the same thing about the president or the attorney general. The former insists he can interfere at will in the work of the Justice Department. The latter evidently doesn’t see such relentless political interference as something so destructive to the rule of law.
We don’t need the passage of time or the publication of memoirs to see clearly what is happening. This is worse than Watergate or the Saturday Night Massacre. Judge Jackson knows it too, even though she couldn’t bring herself to say so explicitly before ordering Stone to start a new life as a federal prisoner.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center. A version of this piece was originally published by New York Magazine.