The four lawyers who prosecuted Roger Stone have quit the case after the Justice Department overruled them and said it would take the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek for President Donald Trump’s long-time ally and confidant.
The departures raised immediate questions over whether Mr Trump, who earlier in the day had blasted the original sentencing recommendation as “very horrible and unfair”, had at least indirectly exerted his will on a Justice Department that he often views as an arm of the White House.
The department insisted the decision to undo the sentencing recommendation was made on Monday night, before Mr Trump’s tweet, and prosecutors had not spoken to the White House about it.
Even so, the departures of the entire trial team broke open a simmering dispute over the punishment of a Trump ally whose case has long captured the Republican president’s attention.
The episode was the latest to entangle the Justice Department, meant to operate free from White House sway in criminal investigations and prosecutions, in presidential politics.
The four lawyers, including two who were early members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia team, comprised the entire Justice Department trial team that won convictions against Stone last autumn.
None lent their names to a Tuesday memo that called the original recommendation excessive.
The departures leave in limbo the resolution of a case that was one of the signature prosecutions of Mr Mueller’s team and that cut to the heart of his mission, to determine whether the Trump team had access to non-public information about Democratic emails hacked by Russian operatives and provided to WikiLeaks.
Mr Trump was back on the attack late Tuesday, slamming the original sentencing recommendation and questioning the judge overseeing the Stone case.
And by early Wednesday, he had tweeted a congratulations to Attorney General William Barr “for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have been brought”, suggesting the prosecutors had gone rogue.
Mr Barr, the Justice Department’s leader, has been a steady ally of the president’s since taking the position.
Mr Barr last year cleared the president of obstruction of justice even when Mueller had pointedly declined to do so, and has declared that the FBI’s Russia investigation, which resulted in charges against Stone, had been based on a “bogus narrative”.
It was unclear what sentence the department will ultimately seek, a new sentencing memo filed Tuesday evening indicated that the original recommendation was too harsh but proposed no specific punishment of its own.
A Justice Department official said authorities decided to step in and seek a shorter sentence because they had been taken by surprise by the initial recommendation.
In their revised sentencing memo, Justice Department officials argued the initial recommendation could be “considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances” but also said they would defer to the court.
It is extremely rare for Justice Department leaders to reverse the decision of its own prosecutors on a sentencing recommendation, particularly after that recommendation has been submitted to the court.
A mass exodus from a case is also rare, though the tumult did conjure an episode from last summer when Justice Department lawyers abruptly left a lawsuit over whether a citizenship question could be added to the census.
He later told reporters he didn’t speak to Justice Department officials, though he said he could if he wanted.
“I have the absolute right to do it.
“I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn’t believe, but I didn’t speak to them,” Mr Trump said.
Hours after Mr Trump’s tweet, a Justice Department official called the original recommendation “extreme” and “grossly disproportionate” to Stone’s crimes and said it would file a new sentencing memo.
The departures began soon after.
Aaron Zelinsky, a Mueller team member, quit the case and his job in Washington, with plans to return to his position as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore.
Another early Mueller team member, Adam Jed, also withdrew from the case.
Another federal prosecutor in Washington, Michael Marando, withdrew from the case, and a fourth trial team member, Jonathan Kravis, resigned his position as an assistant US attorney.
Sentencing decisions are ultimately up to the judge, who in this case may side with the original recommendation.