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 post-conviction procedures 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 Thursday cut to the heart of the matter. Before she sentenced Stone to 40 months in prison, before she incurred the inevitable new round of vitriol from the president, she told Stone’s lawyers, and the world, “the truth still exists. The truth still matters.” And it does.
Start with Stone himself. He is not some poor indigent defendant railroaded by a judge and prosecutor into a wrongful conviction. He is not a victim. Nor is he like the thousands of prisoners sitting today in state or federal penitentiaries who would benefit from the sort of prosecutorial charity 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 federal jury following a contested trial in which he was ably represented.
If that were all Stone had done it would have been enough — dayenu — to justify a significant prison sentence. But while his case was pending he demonstrated his lack of remorse or regret by threatening Judge 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.
That’s why Stone will go to prison soon, unless the president intercedes with the pardon he’s been hinting at for months. In America, at least for now, the truth still matters, evidence still counts, and a jury’s verdict still reverberates. “He has not been prosecuted by his adversaries or anyone else’s adversaries,” Judge 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.
Judge 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. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats have not subpoenaed a single witness to the scandal to come tell their story. That is not just the absence of meaningful legislative oversight. It’s another form of political abdication, and in the context of this administration’s continuing malfeasance, it’s inexplicable.
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 at the president’s behest. Don’t believe me? Take Trump’s word for it. Don’t believe him? Believe the colloquy Thursday between Judge Jackson and federal prosecutors, who told the judge in open court that the original sentencing recommendation had been vetted by “Main Justice,” meaning high-ranking DOJ officials in Washington.
The truth still matters to those 2,000 former federal prosecutors, and counting, who have signed an open letter demanding that Barr resign or be fired 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. They aren’t even doing it because Barr’s special treatment of Stone exposes the rank hypocrisy of the administration’s approach to prosecutorial discretion (it’s okay when the Feds do it, not okay when local prosecutors — elected officials — choose to do it).
No, these former prosecutors, from Republican administrations and Democratic ones, are protesting as loudly as they are because they see Barr’s misconduct in the Roger Stone case, and his recent move to interfere in the case of Michael Flynn, another convicted Trump crony, 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 raging after 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, Judge Jackson said, and “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 work of an attorney general and to the reputation of the Justice Department that it merits a resignation in protest.
This is one of those moments in American history where we don’t need the passage of time, or the publication of memoirs, to see clearly what is happening. This is not a case of bureaucratic misunderstandings or legitimate disagreements among public servants. This is the nation’s chief law enforcement official subverting the independence of the Justice Department. This is worse than Watergate, or the Saturday Night Massacre. Indeed, there is no precedent for it in our nation’s history. Judge Jackson knows it, even though she couldn’t bring herself to say so explicitly before ordering Stone to start a new life as a federal prisoner.