Corrected 9:06 p.m. | Senate Republicans left it to a federal judge Wednesday to sweep away questions of improper political influence by the White House in the criminal case against Roger Stone — even as President Donald Trump tried to cast doubt on fairness ahead of his longtime adviser’s sentencing.
Trump used his Twitter megaphone to highlight U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson and her previous actions in other cases, part of a remarkable series of presidential tweets related to Stone’s case.
First, Trump tweeted that a sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years in prison for Stone was “unfair.” The Justice Department then took the rare step of intervening to rescind that sentencing recommendation. Four career prosecutors resigned from the case in protest. Trump then tweeted congratulations to Attorney General William Barr for “taking charge” of the case.
Jackson, a Barack Obama appointee, still has ultimate say over Stone’s sentence and does not have to follow the Justice Department’s recommendations at a Feb. 20 sentencing hearing. She is no stranger to high-profile political cases and is expected to have tough questions for prosecutors about whether or how politics played into the rescinded recommendation.
Downplaying the influence
Key Republican senators are banking on Jackson countering any White House political influence on her or the Justice Department when it comes to Stone’s case.
“I think [Trump] can say what he wants to say. The question is, you know, will it have any effect, and the answer to that should be no,” said Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. “I doubt the judge will take any — the judge shouldn’t consider anything other than the facts before him or her.”
Former Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa expressed a similar sentiment: “As long as we got an independent judiciary and a judge’s going to make a decision on the penalty, it doesn’t matter what anybody else said. Nobody’s going to question that.”
As did Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, whose opposition to more witnesses and documents hastened the end of Trump’s impeachment trial. Alexander, who is retiring at the end of this Congress, said then he hoped Trump would learn from that experience.
“The sentencing is in the hands of the courts, which should make an appropriate decision, and politics should never play a part in law enforcement,” Alexander said. “So that’s what I have to say about that.”
Senate Republicans don’t appear poised to do much else to respond to the Justice Department’s actions in the Stone case or Trump’s tweets about Jackson. Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who said Trump learned “a pretty big lesson” from impeachment, was among those who offered criticism Wednesday, telling reporters that “the president should not have gotten involved.”
But Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters Wednesday that he would not call Barr to testify about the Justice Department’s handling of the Stone case, an oversight hearing that Senate Democrats had demanded.
House Democrats announced that Barr has agreed to testify March 31 before the House Judiciary Committee about “numerous concerns,” including “the decision to overrule your career prosecutors and significantly reduce the recommended sentence for Roger Stone.”
The Stone case isn’t the only recent time Republicans have pointed to the courts rather than take charge themselves when Trump and his administration have more aggressively rebuked Washington norms.
Kicking to the courts
During the impeachment investigation and trial, several Republicans, instead of finding fault with Trump’s fight-all-the-subpoenas approach to congressional oversight, pointed out that House Democrats had not gone to court to enforce subpoenas against Trump administration witnesses and documents.
Congress, more and more, is relying on courts to rein in the executive branch rather than doing the tough work themselves, said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.
“The Senate Republicans have no interest in doing anything about this stuff. I think that’s been proven over and over and over,” Huder said. “So, by default, everything sort of falls to the courts.”
Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said Republicans remaining silent about Trump’s behavior, as in their votes last week to acquit Trump on an article of impeachment for abuse of power, appeared to give the president renewed freedom to go on a “six-day retribution tour” against his perceived enemies.
“Because the president’s unhinged and doesn’t think he’s accountable to anybody, it makes the legislative branch and the judicial branch more important,” Brown said. “The legislative branch continues to just say, ‘Go ahead, Mr. President, do whatever you want.’”
Trump played coy in a tweet, in response to another tweet that mentioned Jackson and her role in the case against former campaign manager Paul Manafort and other cases related to the Trump campaign.
“Is this the Judge that put Paul Manafort in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, something that not even mobster Al Capone had to endure? How did she treat Crooked Hillary Clinton? Just asking!” the president wrote.
‘Nobody need listen’
Hillary Clinton, in response, said the president was “intimidating judges.” And Brown said Trump’s tweet about Jackson must be intimidating to her since she doesn’t know whether someone might attack her in his name.
“She doesn’t want her life made worse by an unhinged president,” Brown said.
Trump, more than previous presidents, has singled out judges for criticism about decisions on legal challenges to his policies, saying of a 2018 immigration ruling: “This was an Obama judge.” That drew a rare rebuke from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who rejected the notion that judges are loyal to the presidents who appoint them.
Trump’s mention of Jackson in the Stone case makes strange bedfellows of Senate Republicans and Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, a Trump critic who said it was great that Jackson, who has life tenure on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is not subject to Trump’s influence.
“Thank heaven for the independent judiciary,” Tribe tweeted. “Let Trump spew whatever garbage his foul mouth blurts out. Nobody need listen.”
An earlier version of this report misidentified the president who appointed U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson.