WASHINGTON -- Top Justice Department officials came under fire Wednesday for jettisoning a recommendation by career prosecutors that Roger Stone, a longtime confidante of President Donald Trump, receive a stiff prison sentence.
Democrats called for investigations into the reversal, which led four career prosecutors Tuesday to dramatically withdraw from the case. Former federal prosecutors said the department appeared to have either botched its oversight of the prosecution or abandoned decades of independence to help a friend of Trump's.
Either way, they said, the Justice Department suffered a serious blow to its reputation in withdrawing recommendations that Stone, a longtime Republican operative and self-proclaimed dirty trickster, be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison for obstructing a House investigation, witness tampering and lying to Congress.
"It's a disaster," said Mary McCord, who spent two decades as a federal prosecutor and was acting assistant attorney general for national security in 2016 and 2017. "The department has no credibility left."
Stone is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 20.
Democrats will get their chance to question Attorney General William Barr next month. The House Judiciary Committee said Wednesday that Barr, after a monthslong standoff with the panel, had agreed to testify March 31.
Trump praised Barr and the Justice Department on Wednesday for dialing back the sentencing recommendation for Stone.
"Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control," Trump tweeted.
The trouble started Tuesday when Trump expressed his displeasure with the sentencing recommendation that career prosecutors made Monday in court filings. They had argued that guidelines suggesting Stone receive a sentence of only 15 to 21 months in prison were too lenient given that he was convicted at trial of seven felony counts.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, they argued, should take into account that Stone threatened the life of a witness and obstructed justice, boosting his guideline range to seven to nine years.
If the judge agrees, the 67-year-old Stone will receive the harshest sentence of the half-dozen Trump associates convicted of crimes that include tax fraud and lying to investigators.
After Trump tweeted that the recommended sentence was a "miscarriage of justice," the Justice Department ordered prosecutors to abandon their position on sentencing.
At that point, the four prosecutors who won the Stone conviction, two of whom had previously worked on special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, abruptly withdrew from the case. One resigned from the department.
Another prosecutor was tapped to take over. John Crabb, the chief of the criminal section in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, wrote in court papers Tuesday that the original filing "does not accurately reflect the Department's position" and the prison recommendation was too severe.
Incarceration was warranted, Crabb wrote, but prosecutors deferred to Jackson to decide the appropriate sentence.
Both sentencing filings were approved by Timothy Shea, the acting U.S. attorney, court papers show. Shea was appointed Jan. 30, taking over for Jessie Liu, who had left the position pending her nomination to a senior Treasury Department position.
Trump on Tuesday withdrew Liu's nomination. An associate of Liu's said she believes Barr blamed her for the Stone debacle and "threw her under the bus with Trump."
"The president's allies think she is part of the 'deep state,' so it was easy to pin this on her," said the associate, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect private conversations.
Former and current prosecutors were befuddled by the department's handling of the matter. They said Shea, a close adviser to Barr, was put in the job to help the attorney general supervise politically sensitive investigations.
Shea felt the recommendation was too harsh. So did Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and his staff, former and current prosecutors said.
Officials in Barr's office were briefed on the recommendations. It is not clear how much Justice Department officials pushed back, or why Shea signed onto the sentencing brief submitted by the career prosecutors.
Former prosecutors said the controversy further chipped away at the Justice Department's reputation for independence and will harm morale.
"The integrity of the Justice Department is now in question," said Steven Levin, a former federal prosecutor. "Federal prosecutors will admire the position that their peers took in stepping down from the case but they will be demoralized by the lack of integrity shown by the leadership."
Levin and other former federal prosecutors said they did not understand why the Justice Department didn't ask the judge for more time to craft its sentencing recommendation and continue internal deliberations.
"This is all extraordinarily embarrassing for the Justice Department," said James Trusty, a former top federal prosecutor.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec did not reply to emails or phone calls seeking comment.
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