Donald Trump’s public intervention in Roger Stone’s sentencing has little to do with Roger Stone’s fate, and everything to do with Trump’s effort to render every governmental authority except for his own a sham.
That includes the authority, and fairness, of the justice system.
The contempt is the point. There is every reason to expect that Trump will pardon Stone before he sets foot in prison, even if the dirty trickster receives a low sentence for his very serious crimes, which entailed obstructing inquiries into Trump’s own misconduct.
Trump hardly appears interested in favorably influencing the judge who is about to sentence Stone. On the contrary, Trump has personally attacked her. In fact, it is a near certainty that Trump will pardon Stone before he sets foot in prison, even if he receives a low sentence for his very serious crimes, which entailed obstructing inquiries into Trump’s own misconduct. Trump all but declared as much today when asked about the prospect of clemency for Stone, responding: “I don’t want to say that yet.”
But by inducing his attorney general, Bill Barr, to humiliate himself and the Department of Justice through the public repudiation of the DOJ’s own sentencing recommendation less than 24 hours after it was filed, Trump has demonstrated that the justice system is, finally, being molded to his will and whims.
The reversal came only hours after a Trump-issued tweet loudly objecting to the DOJ’s sentencing recommendation as a miscarriage of justice. The Justice Department’s unbelievable assertion that its near immediate reversal of position was unconnected to the president’s complaint only rendered the situation more pathetic.
The signal attributes of every authoritarian regime are hollowed-out law enforcement and judicial systems that answer to the leader, not to their own putative rules and procedures. From the outset of his presidency, Trump has openly longed for such power, but has repeatedly found it to be outside his grasp.
The second part of the Mueller Report is, at bottom, a tale of Trump’s repeatedly being frustrated in his efforts to get acolytes to fire Robert Mueller, and thereby demonstrate Trump's imperviousness to the law, regardless of the extent of his guilt.
And although Mueller could not charge Trump himself, the fact that the special counsel charged and convicted some of the president’s senior flunkies, including Paul Manafort and Stone, clearly irked the president, not because he has any empathy for his cronies, but because it demonstrated the limits of Trump’s own power in the face of a still functioning justice system.
The impeachment trial, on the other hand, was a theatrical enactment of the kind of pseudo justice system Trump has long wanted to establish. Even after the Bolton revelations made it impossible for GOP senators to credibly deny that Trump was guilty, all but one of them nonetheless voted to acquit him. This seemed, finally, to establish Trump’s long-desired ability to simply declare his own corrupt conduct to be “perfect,” and escape all consequences for it, solely by virtue of his power as leader.
It is therefore hardly coincidental that Trump followed up his Friday night massacre of the Vindman brothers and Gordon Sondland with an audacious demonstration of his power to trash one of Mueller’s successful prosecutions. Today, Trump triumphantly declared Barr had shown that the “Mueller Scam was improperly brought & tainted.” Trump was finally firing Mueller, retroactively.
Although the impact of Trump’s action will largely be symbolic so far as Stone is concerned, its significance should not be minimized. By causing Barr to publicly repudiate his department’s carefully considered sentencing recommendation, Trump sent a powerful message: Just as testifying truthfully under oath about Trump’s crimes is now a firing offense, so following the standards set by the law will now be grounds for law-enforcement officers to be targeted by the president.
All four members of the Stone prosecution team publicly quit the case after the president’s actions, but anyone who thinks that will disturb Trump misunderstands his desires. Just as Trump is happy to see Barr and his other cabinet members humiliate themselves to stay in his good graces, so would he be happy to have honest public servants depart and leave him with a Department of Justice composed entirely of flunkies living in mortal fear of displeasing him.
By repudiating a submission made in the name of his own hand-picked interim U.S. Attorney simply to please the boss, Barr declared himself to be Trump’s most abjectly loyal flunky, a model for Trump’s new pseudo justice system. After refusing to appear before the House Judiciary Committee for the better part of a year, Barr has reportedly finally agreed to do so, and will doubtlessly face intense questioning then, including about the DOJ’s enthusiastic participation in Trump’s stonewalling of the Ukraine investigation as well as his servile role in the Stone fiasco.
But we already know that the sentence Stone receives has never really mattered to Trump. In fact, Roger Stone, though he loyally served Trump for years, does not much matter to the president; like all of his flunkies, Stone is disposable. What matters to the leader is proving that the rule of law does not matter anymore, at least where Donald Trump is concerned.