Two prosecutors who helped convict Roger Stone– a longtime associate and friend of Donald Trump – have withdrawn from the case after the Department of Justice said it would change a sentencing recommendation condemned by the US president as too harsh.
Aaron Zelinsky and Jonathan Kravis, career prosecutors who on Monday had recommended Mr Stone face up to nine years in prison, withdrew from the case on Tuesday afternoon, according to court filings.
Mr Kravis said in a filing that he had resigned as an assistant US attorney, the title given to frontline lawyers in US attorney’s offices. Mr Zelinsky, who was on assignment to the US attorney’s office for the District of Columbia for the Stone case, said in an earlier filing he had resigned as a special assistant US attorney.
Neither man could be immediately reached for comment. A spokeswoman for the Baltimore US attorney’s office said Mr Zelinsky continued to have a role there.
The dramatic moves came after Mr Trump criticised prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation in a tweet on Tuesday, shortly after midnight, saying: “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”
A justice department official subsequently told US media on Tuesday the proposed sentence was “extreme and excessive and disproportionate to Mr Stone’s offenses” and that the justice department would “clarify its position”.
Kerri Kupec, a DoJ spokeswoman, told US media the decision to alter the sentencing recommendation was made before Mr Trump’s tweet and without consultation with the White House. Ms Kupec did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The events have raised questions about political interference in Mr Stone’s case. The self-described “dity trickster” who sports a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back, was convicted earlier this year for lying to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.
“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,” Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, said in a statement.
Mr Stone had initially been prosecuted by Robert Mueller, special counsel, as part of his investigation into Russian election interference. Mr Zelinsky was a member of the special counsel’s team.
Mr Stone, 67, is seeking a sentence of probation instead of jail time. Grant Smith, an attorney for Mr Stone, said on Tuesday: “Our sentencing memo outlined our position on the recommendation made yesterday by the government. We look forward to reviewing the government’s supplemental filing.”