WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said his longtime friend and political advisor Roger Stone has a "very good chance of exoneration," hours after a federal judge on Thursday sentenced the self-proclaimed dirty trickster to more than three years in prison.
Trump made the remarks during a graduation ceremony for formerly incarcerated people in Las Vegas, where he also railed against enemies both new and old, including the Justice Department, former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired in May 2017, and the foreperson of Stone's jury.
"What happened to Roger Stone is unbelievable," Trump said, and "it isn't fair."
Nonetheless, said Trump, "I'm not going to do anything in terms of the great powers bestowed upon a president of the United States. I want the process to play out. I think that's the best thing to do. Because I'd love to see Roger exonerated, and I'd love to see it happen because I personally think he was treated very unfairly."
Stone was convicted late last year of seven felonies, including obstruction of a congressional investigation, lying to Congress and witness tampering. He was sentenced to 40 months in prison on Thursday.
Over nearly 20 minutes of off-script remarks during the nonprofit Hope for Prisoners event, Trump insisted that Stone had played no official role in his 2016 presidential campaign. But Trump simultaneously argued that the jury foreperson's opinion of Trump had irreparably tainted Stone's guilty verdict.
"Now, you wouldn't know about a bad jury," Trump said sarcastically to the audience of former inmates. "Anybody here know about bad juries? These people know more about bad juries than everybody here, including the sheriff and the mayor and everybody.They know about bad juries."
Stone's lawyers requested a new trial before Thursday's sentencing, alleging in a motion that the political opinions of the jury foreperson amounted to bias against Stone.
The president also used the opportunity to complain about people who have not been prosecuted, but who he thinks should be, including Comey, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
"They say [Stone] lied, but other people lied, too" Trump continued. "Just to mention, Comey lied, McCabe lied, Lisa Page lied. ... You don't know who these people are. But just trust me, they all lied."
At the sentencing hearing Thursday, Judge Amy Berman Jackson excoriated Stone for what she said were deliberate, pernicious crimes, and not the result of persecution, as both Trump and Stone have previously claimed.
"He was not prosecuted, as some have complained, for standing up for the president," Berman Jackson said from the bench. "He was prosecuted for covering up for the president."
Trump's response is the latest chapter in an escalating battle between the president and his Justice Department over who controls federal prosecutors, and whether Trump can intervene in cases involving his friends and associates.
Trump first objected on Feb. 11 to the sentence that federal prosecutors had recommended for Stone, calling the seven to nine year recommended sentence "horrible and very unfair."
Attorney General William Barr subsequently moved to reduce the recommendation, a decision Barr later claimed he made before the president's tweet. Barr's intervention triggered all four prosecutors assigned to the case to withdraw, and one to resign from government.
Despite the ensuing controversy, Trump tweeted congratulations to Barr for "taking charge" of the Stone case.
On Feb. 13, Barr gave a startling interview to ABC News, in which he said Trump's tweets about Justice Department cases, personnel and federal judges were "a problem."
"To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about our people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we're doing our work with integrity," Barr said in the interview.
Within hours of Barr's interview, Trump fired back, tweeting that he had a right to intervene in Justice Department cases, but also insisting that he had not done so in Stone's case.
Over the next week, Trump repeatedly demonstrated that he had no intention of staying silent, however. As recently as Thursday morning, Trump was still tweeting about the case after Stone's hearing had begun, and questioning the Justice Department's decision not to prosecute two former FBI officials.
Trump and Stone have been friends for more than 30 years. The relationship began when Trump's longtime lawyer in New York, the infamous late Roy Cohn, introduced Trump to Stone. At the time, Stone was an up-and-coming Republican political operative in Washington and a partner in a lobbying shop with Paul Manafort, the lobbyist who would later go on to briefly manage Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Manafort is also currently behind bars for tax fraud.
In the years since Trump and Stone's first meeting, Stone has repeatedly acted as a de facto political advisor to Trump, who first flirted with the idea of running for president as far back as 1987.
The two men appreciate one another's no-holds-barred style of political brawling. Stone even worked as a lobbyist for Trump's casinos at one point in the late 1980s.
As Trump's presidential campaign began to take shape in 2015, however, the candidate split with Stone, who formally left the campaign team in August of that year.
Nonetheless, Stone continued to help Trump on the sidelines, acting as both a media surrogate and as an emissary for Trump with far-right groups and, allegedly, with people connected to Wikileaks.