Roger Stone faces judge who has spurned and sided with Trump

David Voreacos

The judge who will sentence Roger Stone is an Obama appointee who’s drawn scorn from the president for her handling of the criminal case against Paul Manafort and a civil lawsuit involving Hillary Clinton.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson will decide on Feb. 20 how much prison time to give Stone, a longtime Republican political operator and presidential confidant who publicly antagonized her before his trial.

The Justice Department complicated her task on Tuesday when it backed off its recommendation of a seven- to nine-year prison sentence for Stone.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson at an awards breakfast for pro bono counsel at the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in Washington, Thursday, April 21, 2016.

Later in the day, President Donald Trump took direct aim at Jackson. “Is this the Judge that put Paul Manafort in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, something that not even mobster Al Capone had to endure?” he tweeted, even though Manafort’s confinement was ordered by corrections officials. “How did she treat Crooked Hillary Clinton? Just asking!”

Trump tweeted about the Stone case on Thursday, questioning whether a juror had “significant bias” in the case. Stone’s lawyers had made that argument in seeking a new trial, but Jackson rejected it a ruling on Wednesday.

Jackson, a 65-year-old Harvard Law School graduate appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama in 2011, oversaw some of the biggest cases arising out of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, including the guilty plea and sentencing of Manafort, who was sent to prison for financial and other crimes.

She took heat from Trump supporters before Manafort’s conviction for issuing a gag order against him and later revoking his bail and throwing him in jail.

In 2017, Jackson dismissed a lawsuit filed by the parents of two of the four Americans who died at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, five years earlier. The parents sought to pin blame for the attack on Clinton, Trump’s election opponent in 2016 who was secretary of state when the attack occurred.

And on Monday, Jackson sided with Trump, tossing out a lawsuit in which watchdog groups asked her to order the White House to retain records of Trump’s meetings and calls with foreign leaders.

“She is very smart, works very hard and is very fair,” said Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge who teaches sentencing at Harvard Law School. “The fact that the president feels free to trash a federal judge is outrageous to the Nth degree, particularly with a judge that’s about to sentence Stone.”

The defendant who could define her career is Stone, the self-professed political dirty trickster convicted last year of obstructing a congressional investigation, making false statements to Congress and tampering with witnesses.

Throughout his legal defense, Stone openly expressed contempt for law enforcement and the court, including in an Instagram post last year showing Jackson’s face alongside what appeared to be a rifle-scope cross-hairs.

Jackson stopped short of ordering Stone to jail over the image, but she barred him from participating in any media interviews and told him to not use social media to discuss his case.

“Roger Stone fully understands the power of words and the power of symbols. There’s nothing ambiguous about cross-hairs,” Jackson said at the time.

This courtroom sketch shows former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone talking from the witness stand as Judge Amy Berman Jackson listens during a court hearing at the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Berman Jackson issued a broad gag order forbidding Stone to discuss his criminal case with anyone and gave him a stinging reprimand over his posting of a photo of the judge with what appeared to be crosshairs of a gun.

At Stone’s sentencing hearing, the judge is almost certain to press the Justice Department to explain its about-face over Stone’s punishment, which came after Trump tweeted that the seven- to nine-year recommendation “cannot stand.”

The four original prosecutors on the case – who recommended the longer sentence – all withdrew in apparent protest.

“She’ll take away from it that when the government that does a 180-degree turn on the sentencing recommendation, then it shouldn’t be trusted,” said Gertner, who was on the federal bench for 17 years.

Gertner said that although most people get 12 to 18 months in prison in this type of case, Jackson may make a different analysis for Stone. “This is an obstruction case unlike any other because of Stone’s behavior after the charges were brought,” she said.

Jackson is free to accept or reject any of the arguments by prosecutors and Stone’s lawyers when she imposes her sentence. One important decision she’ll have to make is how seriously to take Stone’s threats against his associate, Randy Credico, who testified for prosecutors. Stone threatened to kill Credico and his dog. But Credico told Jackson in a letter he didn’t feel threatened.

The first group of prosecutors said the Credico threat should add to his sentence, suggesting a maximum term of nine years. But the second group discounted that threat, saying Credico didn’t actually mean to harm Stone. They said the original sentence calculation was “excessive and unwarranted.” They made no specific recommendation on a prison term that they said should range from three to four years.

Once Jackson sets a range for Stone, she’ll then consider his entire life in crafting how harshly to sentence him. That’s when his combative conduct before trial could work against him. Stone is likely to appeal any sentence, even as he holds out for a presidential pardon.

“I don’t think she will go with a seven-year sentence because that would make it appear she is biased against Stone,” said Peter Henning, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. “She can stay out of the political cross-hairs by imposing a reasonable sentence, which will enhance her reputation for independence.”

Jackson’s determination to protect the court from political influence was on display during the sentencing of Rick Gates, a longtime Manafort deputy who pleaded guilty to making false statements and conspiring against the U.S. At the hearing, she credited Gates for extensively cooperating with prosecutors and bucking pressure from Manafort “and others” to hold out.

But she also rejected a letter she’d received on Gates’s behalf that said he’d merely gotten “caught up” in the drama of Washington’s political scene. “I reject that,” the judge said. “Politics don’t corrupt people. People corrupt politics.”

With assistance from Andrew Harris and Erik Larson.