WASHINGTON – All four career prosecutors handling the case against Roger Stone, a confidant of President Donald Trump, asked to withdraw from the legal proceedings Tuesday — and one quit his job entirely — after the Justice Department signaled that it planned to reduce their sentencing recommendation for the president's friend.
The sudden and dramatic moves came after prosecutors and their superiors had argued for days over the appropriate penalty for Stone, and surfaced what some career Justice Department employees said is more evidence that the historically independent law enforcement institution is being bent to Trump's political will.
Jonathan Kravis, one of the prosecutors, wrote in a court filing he had resigned as an assistant U.S. attorney, leaving the government altogether. Three others — Aaron Zelinsky, Adam Jed and Michael Marando — asked a judge's permission to leave the case.
Zelinsky, a former member of special counsel Robert Mueller's team, also indicated in a filing that he was leaving his special assignment to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia, though a spokeswoman said he will remain an assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore.
None provided a reason for their decisions.
The departures came hours after a senior Justice Department official told reporters that the agency's leadership had been "shocked" by the seven-to-nine-year penalty prosecutors asked a judge to impose on Stone and intended to ask for a lesser penalty.
"That recommendation is not what had been briefed to the department," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive case. "The department finds the recommendation extreme and excessive and disproportionate to Stone's offenses."
Later Tuesday, the department filed an updated sentencing recommendation that contradicted the reasoning laid out by line prosecutors and asserting that the initial guidance "could be considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances."
The memorandum was signed by interim U.S. attorney for D.C. Timothy Shea and his criminal division supervisor, John Crabb.
None of the four career attorneys who signed the first memo affixed their names to the second.
"Ultimately, the government defers to the Court as to what specific sentence is appropriate under the facts and circumstances of this case," Shea and Crabb wrote.
Through a spokeswoman, Zelinsky declined to comment. Jed also declined to comment. Kravis could not immediately be reached.
The department's decision to overrule front-line prosecutors and the prosecutors' subsequent moves laid bare the tension — between career prosecutors and department leadership — that has roiled the Stone case in recent days, and it raises fresh concerns about the politicization of Trump's Justice Department.
The Justice Department's statement came hours after Trump tweeted about the sentence prosecutors had recommended, saying: "This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!"
He expressed similar sentiments after the Justice Department's change in posture became public Tuesday, saying the earlier recommendation was "an insult to our country," though he also claimed, "I have not been involved in it at all."
"That was a horrible aberration. These are, I guess, the same Mueller people that put everybody through hell and I think it was a disgrace," Trump said. "They ought to be ashamed of themselves."
Kerri Kupec, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said that the White House did not communicate with the agency on Monday or Tuesday, and that the decision to reverse course was made before Trump's tweet.
Meanwhile, in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Trump railed about a decorated combat veteran who testified about the president's conduct with Ukraine, suggesting the Defense Department should consider disciplining him.
"The military can handle him any way they want," Trump said of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was ousted from his position on the National Security Council last Friday and reassigned to the Pentagon.
Asked whether he was recommending the military take disciplinary action against Vindman for his House testimony in the impeachment proceedings, Trump replied, "They're going to certainly, I would imagine, take a look at that."
Stone was convicted by a jury in November of obstructing Congress and witness tampering. His was the last conviction secured by Mueller as part of the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Stone has been a friend and adviser to Trump since the 1980s and was a key figure in his 2016 campaign, working to discover damaging information on Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Former Justice Department officials and those on the political left said the department's abrupt shift on Stone was an egregious example of the president and his attorney general bending federal law enforcement to serve their political interests.
David Laufman, a former Justice Department official, called it a "shocking, cram-down political intervention" in the criminal justice process.
"We are now truly at a break-glass-in-case-of-fire moment for the Justice Dept.," he wrote on Twitter.