Former special counsel Robert Mueller has broken his silence by defending the prosecution of political operative Roger Stone, after President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of his former adviser on Friday.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Saturday, Mr Mueller fought back against the president’s claim that his Russia probe was a politically motivated witch hunt. He emphasised that Mr Stone’s conviction for lying to Congress and engaging in witness tampering to protect Mr Trump still stood.
“The Russia investigation was of paramount importance. Stone was prosecuted and convicted because he committed federal crimes,” Mr Mueller wrote. “He remains a convicted felon, and rightly so.’
Mr Mueller said he felt “compelled to respond both to broad claims that our investigation was illegitimate and our motives were improper, and to specific claims that Roger Stone was a victim of our office.”
The op-ed comes a day after Mr Trump commuted the prison sentence of Mr Stone — a longtime friend and self-described political “dirty trickster” — who was due to begin his 40-month sentence at a Georgia prison next week.
The White House and Mr Trump have repeatedly painted Mr Stone as a political casualty of a hoax and a “witch hunt”. Mr Mueller examined whether Trump aides colluded with Moscow in a nearly-two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mr Stone is one of several Trump allies who have found themselves under federal investigation since Mr Trump took office.
“Roger Stone was brought into this witch hunt, this whole political witch hunt and the Mueller scam . . . and he was treated very unfairly, just like General [Michael] Flynn is treated unfairly, just like [George] Papadopoulos was treated unfairly,” the president told reporters on Saturday, referring to Mr Trump’s first national security adviser, and a former campaign adviser, respectively.
The White House said Mr Stone’s sentence had been commuted because the operative would have been “at serious medical risk” in prison and “in light of the egregious facts and circumstances surrounding his unfair prosecution, arrest and trial”.
Mr Mueller’s op-ed is a rare public statement from the ex-special counsel, a former FBI director who kept a low profile during the Russia investigation and afterwards.
In his op-ed, Mr Mueller wrote that “Stone became a central figure in our investigation for two key reasons: He communicated in 2016 with individuals known to us to be Russian intelligence officers, and he claimed advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ release of emails stolen by those Russian intelligence officers.”
He added: “We made every decision in Stone’s case, as in all our cases, based solely on the facts and the law and in accordance with the rule of law. The women and men who conducted these investigations and prosecutions acted with the highest integrity. Claims to the contrary are false.”
The president’s move Friday night to commute the sentence of his former confidante prompted calls for an inquiry by Democrats, and a rebuke by a prominent Republican critic.
Mitt Romney, a Utah senator and former Republican presidential nominee, described Mr Trump’s decision as “historic corruption”.
“Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president,” Mr Romney tweeted on Saturday morning.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, said Mr Trump was guilty of “an act of staggering corruption”.
On Saturday, Mr Trump called on Christopher Steele, the British former MI6 officer who wrote the 2016 dossier on Mr Trump’s ties to Russia, to be extradited to the US and jailed. Mr Steele has not been charged with a crime.
“This man should be extradited, tried, and thrown into jail. A sick lier who was paid by Crooked Hillary & the DNC!” Trump tweeted.