The official reprieve came on a Friday evening. “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,” read a White House statement explaining Trump’s decision. “Mr. Stone would be put at serious medical risk in prison. He has appealed his conviction and is seeking a new trial. He maintains his innocence and has stated that he expects to be fully exonerated by the justice system.”
The president’s clemency power allows him to commute any federal sentence as well as to grant pardons. Because Trump is not fully pardoning Stone, he can proceed with an appeal of his conviction that could allow him to clear his name, at least in the eyes of the law. “Mr. Stone, like every American, deserves a fair trial and every opportunity to vindicate himself before the courts,” the White House said. “The president does not wish to interfere with his efforts to do so.”
Jackson, a veteran judge and an appointee of President Barack Obama, knew in February that the punishment she was handing down could very well be quickly and irrevocably lifted by a president who was watching her decision closely. All four prosecutors on Stone’s case had withdrawn from their roles after Attorney General William Barr intervened to force the Justice Department to revise its original sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years. Yet when a new team of prosecutors showed up in court for Stone’s sentencing, they defended their predecessors’ original, harsher request. Jackson pressed the prosecutors to account for the department’s dueling recommendations, but they refused to discuss “internal deliberations.”
Read: A brief history of Roger Stone
Jackson said her decision was not influenced by political pressure. In a lengthy speech before handing down Stone’s sentence, she called out Trump’s comments as “entirely inappropriate.” And she defended the investigation and prosecution of Stone in language that echoed the laments of Trump opponents, who say the president and his allies have waged an assault on the very idea of truth. “The truth still exists. The truth still matters,” she said. “The dismay and disgust at the defendant’s belligerence should transcend party.”
Yet, ultimately, the judge sided with Barr, determining that the prosecutors’ recommendation of a longer sentence was more “than necessary” and giving Stone a prison term less than half as long as the original request. This should not have been a surprise; in March 2019, Jackson gave a similarly mid-range sentence to Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, after his conviction for fraud and other crimes. But if Jackson’s sentence offered Trump a way out of using his clemency power, he ignored it.
The president did not act when Stone was sentenced but waited until just days before he was to report to prison. Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the 67-year-old Stone had asked Judge Jackson whether he could delay the start of his sentence—already pushed back from April until June—to September 1. Jackson granted him only a two-week reprieve, but Trump took care of the rest.