Trump refuses to rule out pardoning Roger Stone as president accused of 'smear job'

Embattled attorney general will appear before Democratic-run House Judiciary Committee next month

Trump denies interfering in Roger Stone sentencing

Donald Trump is not ruling out pardoning longtime friend-turned-political adviser Roger Stone, setting up yet another cliffhanger in his made-for-television presidency.

After firing off a tweet on Monday morning calling the Justice Department's plans to seek a nine-year sentence for Mr Stone "a horrible and very unfair situation" and a "miscarriage of justice," DOJ leaders announced they would seek a softer sentence. What followed was a tsunami of outrage by Democratic lawmakers and some legal experts, warning Mr Trump, after his Senate acquittal, is throwing around unprecedented amounts of presidential power.

The former Apprentice host was asked by reporters on Wednesday whether he has decided on pardoning Stone, who was convicted on charges of lying to Congress and impeding a federal investigation. His response, in so many words: Stay tuned.

"I don't want to say yet," Mr Trump said, again calling Mr Stone's conviction and sentencing "a disgrace."

"They treated Roger Stone very badly," he told reporters. "No one even knows what he did. ... They ought to apologise to him."

But Mr Trump's actions and words – he again floated an idea without giving an official order that a subordinate, in this case Attorney General William Barr, implement it like a presidential direction – have riled up Democrats who lack the votes in the Senate to do anything about it.

Senate Judiciary Committee member Richard Blumenthal on Wednesday called for the AG to step down – a far-fetched idea since Mr Barr is said to be in Mr Trump's very good graces.

"The president of the United States is shattering any pretence to independence and integrity on the part of the Department of Justice," the Connecticut Democrat said. "Attorney General William Barr ought to be ashamed and embarrassed and resign as a result of this action directly interfering in the independent prosecution of Roger Stone."

Other Democrats used harsh rhetoric to sound alarms, but their words revealed just how little they can do to restrain a newly emboldened president.

"Trump is using the powers of the presidency like a tyrant," tweeted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom Mr Trump defeated in the 2016 general election. "Now, to reward accomplices and go after witnesses who dared to speak against him. This should concern and anger us all."

But senior White House aide say the boss gave no such order of the AG.

"[Trump] did not talk to Attorney General Barr about this before the sentence. In fact, the attorney general and the DOJ made very clear that they made this decision before any tweet went out," Principal Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said on Wednesday. "They made this decision on their own."

And a key witness in Mr Stone's trial condemned the president.

"As the son of a man who spent 10 years in prison, I have consistantly [sic] opposed incarceration," Randy Credico, a Stone associate and New York radio host, tweeted. "That being said, Trump's vile smear job on the 4 DC prosecutors were appalling and ominous. In my experience, I found them to be professional, moral, ethical and non partisan."

The Oval Office gaggle followed a Trump tweet on Wednesday morning congratulating Mr Barr for getting involved that appeared to contradict his Tuesday denial of instructing the attorney general to reduce the sentencing recommendation.

After summoning journalists to the Oval Office on Tuesday afternoon, the president the next morning denied instructing Justice Department officials to recommend a softer sentence for his friend, calling the initial nine-year sentence recommendation "ridiculous" and "an insult to our country."

Lacking the votes to punish Mr Trump for any possible wrongdoing or abuse of power, all Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer could do was ask for a Justice Department watchdog to look into the matter, following that will a call for an "emergency" Judiciary Committee hearing – neither of which is likely to ding the president one bit.

"This situation has all the indicia of improper political interference in a criminal prosecution," the Democratic leader wrote in a letter to the IG, asking Mr Horowitz to determine what led Mr Barr to soften the sentencing recommendation and which administration officials were involved.

Mr Schumer raised concerns about the soundness of the US justice system if "the president or his political appointees are permitted to interfere in prosecution and sentencing recommendations in order to protect their friends and associates."

"The president seems to think the entire Justice Department is just his personal lawsuit to prosecute his enemies and help his friends," Mr Schumer told reporters. "Rule of law in this 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."

But answers about why Justice officials sided with the president could be slow to materialise. One possible venue for some is a House Judiciary Committee hearing featuring the country's top lawyer next month, which the panel just locked in on Wednesday. Mr Barr had been refusing to testify in a longstanding dispute with House Democrats.

Meantime, the president also was asked why Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic-socialist, is now the Democratic presidential frontrunner after winning the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

"People like his message," Mr Trump said a day after saying he would prefer to face former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg in the general election because Mr Sanders has a true following.

Hinting at his campaign-trail message that Mr Sanders would turn the country into a failed socialist state, Mr Trump added of the Democratic frontrunner: "But a lot of people don't like that particular message."

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