Trump's corrupt intervention in Stone case was about helping Trump

Trump commuting Roger Stone's sentence was far less about protecting an ally and far more about protecting himself and a larger cover-up.
Image: Roger Stone, former adviser and confidante to President Donald Trump, leaves the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia after being sentenced
Roger Stone, former adviser and confidante to President Donald Trump, leaves the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia after being sentenced Feb. 20, 2020.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Tomorrow morning, Republican operative and convicted felon Roger Stone was scheduled to report to a federal prison to begin a 40-month sentence. Thanks to one of the most important Friday night news dumps in American history, that's not going to happen.

President Donald Trump on Friday commuted the prison sentence of former campaign aide Roger Stone, sparing his longtime adviser from having to report to prison next week.

A jury convicted Stone in November on seven counts, including obstruction, lying to investigators, and witness tampering. But it's worth pausing to reflect on what it was Stone was lying about -- and to whose benefit.

In 2016, as Russia targeted U.S. elections, and as part of the intelligence operation, Moscow used stolen materials in order to help Donald Trump take power. At the time, Roger Stone positioned himself as the Republican campaign's -- and the Republican candidate's -- point person on WikiLeaks, which Russian operatives used to disseminate and weaponize the stolen documents. Team Trump was then able to leverage the Russian efforts, thanks to Stone effectively serving as the campaign's inside man.

Stone proceeded to lie about all of this for a rather specific reason: he was trying to protect the president, whom he hoped would in turn shield him from punishment. Trump, eager to reward a man who lied for him, came through for Stone with a transparently corrupt intervention in his case.

But while the felonious GOP operative appears on the surface to be the real beneficiary of this action -- after all, Stone won't be behind bars tomorrow -- no one should see this as an act of presidential generosity or magnanimity toward a felonious friend. Trump commuted Stone's sentence to help Trump. The president's actions were less about protecting an ally and far more about protecting himself with a cover-up.

On Friday morning, Stone told journalist Howard Fineman, referring to the president, "He knows I was under enormous pressure to turn on him. It would have eased my situation considerably. But I didn't."

There's no real subtlety here: Stone was making clear that he could've come clean, cooperated with investigators, and told the truth that would've proved damaging to Trump. But he didn't -- and it was time for the president to complete the deal, rescue Stone, and ensure that the truth Trump found politically inconvenient remained buried. Or as Mother Jones' David Corn put it, "With this wave of the wand, Trump not only frees a scoundrel; he rewards a co-conspirator and safeguards his own deception."

To this extent, the commutation was its own form of obstruction, this time committed by the president himself. Indeed, the perversion of justice is overt: Stone protected the president from legal liability, so Trump protected Stone from legal liability. Together, they pulled off an ugly scam with brutal consequences.

It is as scandalous a step Trump has taken since taking office -- and given what Americans have seen over the last 42 months, up to and including a presidential impeachment, that's no small thing.

A Washington Post editorial called it "one of the most nauseating instances of corrupt government favoritism the United States has ever seen." The editorial board added, "If the country needed any more evidence, Friday confirmed that the greatest threat to the Republic is the president himself."

Trump can bill himself as a champion of "law and order" or he can engage in flagrant corruption like this. When he tries to do both simultaneously, he's earned the public's disgust.

Postscript: With Election Day just 16 weeks away, it's best not to expect the president to face any official sanctions for these misdeeds. But under different circumstances, it's hardly an exaggeration to see Stone's commutation as an impeachable offense.

Indeed, when Congress drew articles against Richard Nixon, lawmakers specifically referenced the corrupt president "endeavouring to cause prospective defendants, and individuals duly tried and convicted, to expect favoured treatment and consideration in return for their silence or false testimony, or rewarding individuals for their silence or false testimony."

I'd just note, however, that former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade was on the show on Friday night making the case that this looks an awful lot like bribery: an exchange of a thing of value, in exchange for an official act. McQuade added, "The statute of limitations for bribery is five years."