Fact-checking the false claims Trump made in defending Roger Stone

In a meeting with the Ecuadorean president in the Oval Office, President Donald Trump thanked the Justice Department for intervening in the case involving his onetime campaign associate Roger Stone. Trump claimed he hadn't spoken to the department about the case.

Posted: Feb 12, 2020 11:00 PM
Updated: Feb 12, 2020 11:00 PM

President Donald Trump made a series of false and misleading claims in tweets and public remarks Tuesday and Wednesday related to the government's handling of the legal case involving Roger Stone, his longtime adviser, who was convicted in November of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing a congressional investigation.

Trump's comments followed a controversial decision by the Department of Justice to ask a court to sentence Stone to "far less" time in prison than the seven to nine years department prosecutors had recommended to the court just a day prior. All four prosecutors resigned from the case after they were overruled.

The prosecutors and Mueller

Trump tweeted Tuesday: "Who are the four prosecutors (Mueller people?) who cut and ran after being exposed for recommending a ridiculous 9 year prison sentence to a man that got caught up in an investigation that was illegal, the Mueller Scam, and shouldn't ever even have started?"

Speaking to reporters Wednesday about the prosecutors who withdrew, Trump said, "Perhaps they were Mueller people."

Facts First: Only two of the four prosecutors who withdrew from the case worked on the team led by special counsel Robert Mueller that investigated ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The claim that the prosecutors were "exposed" is misleading -- they made their sentencing recommendation in a public court filing, not in secret. And the Mueller investigation was not illegal.

Multiple federal courts have upheld the legality of Mueller's appointment and endorsed actions he took, such as subpoenaing witnesses to testify before a grand jury and bringing criminal charges against some senior Trump aides.

The inspector general for the Department of Justice conducted an exhaustive review and determined in a report released in December that the FBI had a legitimate basis for opening the Russia investigation in July 2016, though his report also criticized some FBI officials for how they had handled other aspects of the investigation.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson

Trump responded Tuesday to a tweet about Amy Berman Jackson, a federal judge in Washington who's overseeing the Stone trial and who presided over other cases resulting from the Mueller investigation. Trump tweeted: "Is this the Judge that put Paul Manafort in SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, something that not even mobster Al Capone had to endure? How did she treat Crooked Hillary Clinton? Just asking!"

Facts First: Jackson did not "put Paul Manafort in solitary confinement." She sent Manafort to jail because he broke the law while out on bail, but she didn't pick the jail and didn't order him to be held in a cell by himself. And he was not subjected to the harsh conditions experienced by prisoners who are sent to solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons.

Here's what happened.

Jackson revoked Manafort's bail in 2018 after he was accused by prosecutors of trying to tamper with witnesses who might testify against him at trial. (He later pleaded guilty to witness tampering.)

Jackson did not dictate where Manafort would be jailed or the conditions of his incarceration. He was sent to the Northern Neck Regional Jail in rural Virginia, where he had a large private room, bathroom, shower, workspace, phone and laptop. He even said during a monitored phone call that he was being treated like a VIP, according to a court filing by prosecutors.

But Manafort complained about being at Northern Neck, saying it was too far from his lawyers and that he was being held in solitary. These complaints were lodged with T.S. Ellis, the federal judge overseeing Manafort's other criminal case in Virginia. Ellis then transferred Manafort to the city jail in Alexandria, Virginia, much closer to the courthouse where he went on trial in 2018.

By that point, Manafort's lawyers realized that this might make his conditions worse, and they unsuccessfully tried to backtrack. Upon Manafort's arrival at the Alexandria jail, Sheriff Dana Lawhorne said, "Because he is a high-profile inmate, Mr. Manafort will be placed in protective custody, which limits his interactions with other inmates."

When sentencing Manafort in 2019, Jackson sharply criticized his defense team for repeatedly claiming that their client had been in "solitary confinement" at Northern Neck, saying it was "disingenuousness" and "an attempt to garner public sympathy."

Jackson noted that the private cells where Manafort was held in protective custody in Alexandria were different from the Special Housing Units, or SHUs, that are used to discipline prisoners with "solitary confinement."

Jackson said of Manafort's situation: "The defendant was not in the SHU. I understand now that he is in protective confinement. It is true that his cell is not shared, it has a single bunk, it has a window, radio, newspapers, and view of the television. It is true that he's released for only a few of his waking hours every day out of that confinement to walk around and be with other people."

Stone and the Trump campaign

Trump tweeted Wednesday that the original sentencing recommendation for Stone was unfair -- and added that Stone "was not even working for the Trump Campaign."

Facts First: Stone officially worked for Trump's campaign for two months in 2015, then became an informal adviser after his formal role ended. During Stone's trial, multiple witnesses testified that he had been in regular contact with Trump and senior campaign officials in 2016 to discuss strategy.

Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015. Two months later, Stone either resigned or was fired; there is a dispute about what happened. At trial, prosecutors introduced as evidence phone records that suggested Stone and Trump had spoken in 2016, after Stone's official role with the campaign had ended. Stone's crimes occurred in 2017, during Trump's presidency.

Comparing the Stone and Wolfe cases

Trump repeatedly said Stone was getting unfair treatment by comparing him to James Wolfe, a longtime senior Senate staffer who served two months in prison for lying to the FBI.

On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted, "Two months in jail for a Swamp Creature, yet 9 years recommended for Roger Stone." The President suggested that the disparity came from "rogue prosecutors." Trump made a similar claim in a tweet on Tuesday, when he said that "a swamp creature with 'pull' was just sentenced to two months in jail for a similar thing that they want Stone to serve 9 years for."

Trump repeated these claims to reporters Wednesday afternoon.

Facts First: The Stone and Wolfe cases have some similarities but also key differences. They were both about national security matters and involved lies to federal investigators. But Stone is in much more legal jeopardy after being convicted of seven felonies, including witness tampering. Wolfe pleaded guilty to just one count of lying to the FBI.

Perhaps the most important difference is how the two defendants handled their criminal cases.

Wolfe reached a plea bargain with prosecutors that resulted in two of the three charges against him being dropped, shaving years from his potential prison sentence. Conversely, Stone fought the charges and was convicted at trial of all seven counts against him, which included lying to Congress, obstructing a congressional investigation and witness tampering.

Prosecutors calculate sentencing recommendations from a framework of regulations, guidelines and laws. In the Stone case, the prosecutors said their seven- to nine-year recommendation was based on the fact that Stone had engaged in a "multi-year scheme" of deception that involved deliberate false statements, a "relentless and elaborate" campaign to silence a witness and the obstruction of an election-interference investigation that was critically important to the country.

Trump blamed prosecutors for Wolfe's two-month sentence. But that ignores the facts of the case. The typical range for his crime, lying to the FBI, is zero to six months in prison. But prosecutors asked the judge to throw the book at Wolfe and send him to prison for two years, a weighty sentence for one count of lying to the FBI. (For comparison, Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to the same charge in 2017 and received 30 days in prison.)

Neither the Wolfe case nor the Stone case appears to have involved any "rogue" actions by prosecutors, like recommending a prison term that goes beyond what is legally permissible.

The President is right to note that Wolfe was well-connected in Washington. Many prominent officials asked the judge for leniency, including Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, who lead the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Wolfe worked for years.

Mueller and Congress

Trump tweeted Wednesday: "Even Bob Mueller lied to Congress!"

Facts First: There is no evidence Mueller lied to Congress, which is a federal crime. There is, however, ample evidence that Stone did. He was found guilty of five counts of doing so.

Trump did not say what lie he was alleging Mueller had told to Congress. But he has previously argued that Mueller wasn't telling the truth when he testified to Congress in July that he was not pursuing another stint as FBI director when he spoke with Trump about the job in May 2017, shortly before he was named special counsel.

Mueller, who served as FBI director between 2001 and 2013, testified that he was not acting "as a candidate" for the job during the May 2017 conversation with Trump. He said that "my understanding (was) I was not applying for that job. I was asked to give my input on what it would take to do the job."

The President's claim was undermined by Trump's former top adviser Steve Bannon, who told Mueller's team that the White House had invited Mueller "to offer a perspective on the institution of the FBI." The Mueller report also said: "Bannon said that, although the White House thought about beseeching Mueller to become Director again, he did not come in looking for the job."

Bannon made similar comments in a 2018 interview with MSNBC, FactCheck.org noted.

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