WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump congratulated Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday for intervening to lower the Justice Department's sentencing recommendation for the president's longtime friend Roger Stone, calling his prosecution "a disgrace" for which Stone deserves an apology.
In sharply worded tweets and comments to reporters, Trump dismissed criticism that the Justice Department was abandoning its traditional independence by responding to his unhappiness with the recommendation that Stone serve up to nine years in prison for obstructing a congressional inquiry.
"Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought," Trump tweeted. He compared the Stone case to the Russia investigation led by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, contending Mueller's work was "improperly brought & tainted.''
Trump's comments came less than 24 hours after four career prosecutors withdrew from the Stone case after senior officials at the department overruled the seven- to nine-year term they had recommended Stone receive. One of the prosecutors also resigned from the Justice Department, where he worked in the public integrity section.
The reaction by the prosecutors and the president's subsequent comments roiled Washington for a second day as Democratic lawmakers, former law enforcement officials and ethics watchdog groups accused Trump of abusing the power of his office to influence the Justice Department in a continuing criminal case.
Eric Holder, who served as attorney general under President Barack Obama, called the situation "unprecedented." Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, likened Tuesday's actions by Trump and the Justice Department to those in countries with authoritarian regimes.
"A corrupt authoritarian and his henchmen are wielding the Justice Department as a shield for friends and a sword for political rivals," Shaub said Wednesday in a Twitter post. "It is impossible to overstate the danger."
Most Republicans in Congress have shown little reaction to Barr getting directly involved in a sentencing recommendation for a Trump associate.
"I do not have an opinion on that," Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, told reporters at his weekly news conference.
Stone was convicted in November of obstructing the House Intelligence Committee's examination of Russian interference in the 2016 election by lying to investigators under oath and trying to block the testimony of a witness who would have exposed his lies.
The initial sentencing recommendation for Stone was filed late Monday. On Tuesday, it was amended and refiled stating that the earlier version "did not accurately reflect the Department of Justice's position on what would be a reasonable sentence in this matter." The department then gave no new suggestion on the length of the sentence.
The department's action followed a Fox News report on the recommendation and a Twitter post by Trump in which he called it a "horrible and very unfair situation."
The decision to override the recommended sentence was made by officials from the offices of Barr and the deputy attorney general. The Justice Department said Tuesday that the case was not discussed with anyone at the White House.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trump denied that his tweet about Barr was political and called the prosecution of Stone "a disgrace."
Asked whether he would pardon Stone, the president said, "I don't want to say that yet, but I tell you what: People were hurt viciously and badly by these corrupt people."
He added that he thought it was unfair that prosecutors recommended that Stone be sentenced to nine years in prison when James Comey, the former FBI director, had not been jailed. He said that prosecutors "ought to apologize to him."
"You have murderers and drug addicts that don't get nine years," the president said.
Presidents have typically avoided interfering in Justice Department decisions to avoid allegations of improper influence, although there is no law against it. Trump has publicly inserted himself into several department matters, in some instances to protect friends like Stone and to direct investigations into his political rivals.
The president has also demanded loyalty from his subordinates and has repeatedly praised Barr's leadership of the department.
But the unusual step of overruling the decisions of career prosecutors, particularly in such a politically charged case, reinforced concerns by Democrats and others that Trump was tipping the scales of justice in favor of his interests.
"I do not take a position on the proper prison term for Mr. Stone, but it would be a blatant abuse of power if President Trump has in fact intervened to reverse the recommendations of career prosecutors at the Department of Justice," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who led the impeachment of the president.
Holder said in a Twitter post early Wednesday, "This affects the rule of law and respect for it."
"Do not underestimate the danger of this situation: the political appointees in the DOJ are involving themselves in an inappropriate way in cases involving political allies of the President," he added.