Four federal prosecutors dramatically quit the criminal case against Republican operative Roger Stone as the Department of Justice reduced their recommendation that a judge sentence the longtime ally of President Donald Trump to up to nine years in prison.
In a revised sentencing memo filed Tuesday, Timothy Shea, U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C., said Stone deserves to be sentenced to "far less" time in prison than what the four prosecutors, who worked under Shea, proposed Monday.
Jonathan Kravis, who delivered the closing argument at Stone's trial last fall, resigned as an assistant U.S. Attorney, according to a court filing in Washington federal court.
Kravis, who did not give a reason in the filing, will no longer work as a prosecutor for the federal government.
The other three prosecutors, Aaron Zelinsky, Adam Jed and Michael Marando, also withdrew from Stone's case, according to their own separate filings, which did not explain their decision.
But those three all will continue working for the federal government.
The four prosecutors all signed the controversial sentencing recommendation for Stone on Monday that quickly came under attack both from the Justice Department and from Trump for being too harsh.
Those prosecutors told Judge Amy Berman Jackson in that filing that Stone should get a prison term of between seven and nine years when he is sentenced Feb. 20 for crimes related to lying to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential election and his efforts to get an associate, comedian Randy Credico, to cover for his lies.
Prosecutors said their proposed sentence mirrors the sentence suggested federal sentencing guidelines, which are calculated according to a formula that takes into account the severity of the crime, the type of conduct involved, and a defendant's prior criminal history.
Justice Department officials objected to that stiff recommended sentence for the 67-year-old Stone immediately after it became public.
Trump early Tuesday morning blasted the first recommended sentence for Stone.
Trump called the proposed prison term "disgraceful," and also tweeted that "this is a horrible and very unfair situation."
It is highly unusual for the Justice Department to reverse a sentencing recommendation after it has been made by prosecutors in a U.S. Attorney's office.
Typically, local U.S. Attorney's offices — which are subordinate to the Justice Department — make their own decisions about sentencing recommendations to judges.
The Justice Department is headed by Trump's appointee, Attorney General William Barr.
The new U.S Attorney for Washington, D.C., Timothy Shea, joined the office less than a month ago.
Shea previously was a close adviser to Barr at the Justice Department.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., criticized the move to lower the recommended sentence, telling reporters that Trump "seems to think the entire Justice Department is just his personal [tool] to prosecute his enemies and help his friends."
"Rule of law in this grand, grand tradition, in this wonderful Justice Department. is just being totally perverted to Donald Trump's own personal desires and needs and it's a disgrace," Schumer said. "Roger Stone should get the full amount of time the prosecutors recommended and we're going to do some oversight of that."
Schumer said he would ask the Justice Department's inspector general, an internal ethics watchdog, to open an inquiry into the issue.
Grant Smith, an attorney for Stone, told CNBC, "We've read with interest the new reporting on Mr. Stone's case."
"Our sentencing memorandum stated our position on the recommendation made yesterday made by the government. We look forward to reviewing the government's supplemental filing," Smith said.
Stone's lawyers, in their own sentencing recommendation filed Monday evening, asked Jackson to give him a sentence of mere probation, with no time behind bars.
Defense lawyers also said that the sentencing guidelines actually suggested a term of 15 to 21 months. Those attorneys argued that prosecutors had miscalculated the sentencing guidelines in the case.
The Justice Department, the Washington, D.C., U.S. Attorney's office and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment from CNBC.
The Washington Post reported Monday evening that the original sentencing filing by prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's office "came after days of intense debate within" that office.
"Front-line prosecutors," some of whom worked with special counsel Robert Mueller when he lodged the charges, "argued for a sentence on the higher end for Stone than some of their supervisors were comfortable with, according to two people familiar with the discussions," The Post reported.
A large fraction of the recommended sentence for Stone, as much as 62 months, comes from a so-called enhancement under federal guidelines related to witness tampering.
Prosecutors acknowledged Monday that Jackson could consider the effect of that enhancement when she crafts Stone's sentence, as well as "Credico's own acknowledgement at trial that he and Stone routinely exchanged text messages with hyperbolic language and Credico's post-trial contention that he did not seriously believe that Stone intended to do him physical harm."
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, said the timing of the reversal in Stone's recommended sentence "raises both eyebrows."
"I think it's unusual" that prosecutors first wanted a sentence in line with federal guidelines "and then changed their minds," said Weinstein, who now is a defense attorney and partner in Hinshaw & Culbertson's Miami office.
Weinstein noted that the prosecutors' 26-page sentencing memo Monday detailed not only the seriousness of Stone's offense but compared his proposed sentence to other, similar cases.
"I'm a little puzzled as to what they're going to say now," Weinstein said. "'That was a typo'?"
"I'm puzzled what it is that changed between last night and today," Weinstein added. "The only thing I'm aware of is the president's tweet. Circumstantially, that sure looks like what's driving this."