DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Why did the U.S. Department of Justice intervene to help an ally of President Trump avoid long prison time? We're talking about Roger Stone, a former Trump adviser. He was convicted of lying to Congress and other charges related to Robert Mueller's investigation. Federal prosecutors recommended Stone serve seven to nine years in prison, but then they were overruled by their bosses at Justice, who called for a lighter sentence. This raises a lot of questions since President Trump got on Twitter to complain about the longer prison sentence that was recommended. As for the career prosecutors who got overruled here, all four of them abruptly withdrew from the case; one even quit. David Laufman was chief of the Justice Department's counterintelligence and export control section from 2014 to 2018 and has joined us this morning to talk about all of this. Thanks for coming in.
DAVID LAUFMAN: Good morning.
GREENE: Have you seen anything like this before - a group of prosecutors just withdrawing from a case in a group?
LAUFMAN: I can't recall any instance of the entire prosecution team resigning en masse and one resigning from the department itself in response to what appears to be political pressure to water down the sentencing recommendation or any litigation position.
GREENE: Let's just start with the prison term that was recommended - seven to nine years. I mean, what - could it be seen as too severe?
LAUFMAN: Sure, it could be seen as too severe. The application of the federal sentencing guidelines technically can sometimes produce unjust results for defendants. I say that both as a former prosecutor and now as a defense attorney. And that's why it's important for federal courts to possess the discretion, not to be bound by the sentencing guidelines and to mete out justice as they see fit under a range of other factors.
GREENE: So it will be up to the judge to make the final call here. But let me ask you, I mean, even if you have never seen something like this before, is it within the purview of top officials at the Justice Department to say no, our prosecutors who worked for us were wrong, let's recommend a lighter sentence?
LAUFMAN: Well, it's certainly within the scope of their authority, but it's an extraordinary circumstance and, in this case, a real shocking repudiation of the outcome of deliberations by career prosecutors and their own chain of command within the U.S. attorney's office and within main Justice. This went through - it must be assumed - a rigorous debate within the department. And that debate resulted in a filing of a sentencing recommendation with the court setting forth the United States government's position as to what it thought was in the best interests of justice. And within 24 hours and following a tweet by the president of the United States excoriating that recommendation, there was a complete reversal of that position where now the department is not endorsing the very position taken less than 24 hours and deferring to the discretion of the court to send it somewhere within the guideline range.
GREENE: Well, then tell me exactly what you see happening in the Department of Justice right now.
LAUFMAN: Well, some kind of havoc that we don't have very good visibility into, apart from what investigative journalists are able to uncover. But the events of yesterday, to me, reasonably cry out for the initiation of an investigation at a minimum by the inspector general of the Department of Justice and, frankly, by the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee to try to learn the underlying facts, what happened and why.
GREENE: I mean, again, you say the underlying facts we don't know. But if this were, as you describe it, very political, if the president complained on Twitter about a sentence for someone who worked for him and the Justice Department changed course, what would be the implications of that?
LAUFMAN: Well, the implications are twofold. One, it reflects a further corrosion of the intrinsic integrity of the Department of Justice itself in its processes. Worse, perhaps, it corrodes public confidence in the integrity and independence of the Department of Justice. And if the public loses faith in the Department of Justice as an independent arbiter of the rule of law, then we have lost something sacred in this country.
GREENE: What message does this send to other prosecutors who, you know, career prosecutors who work for this department?
LAUFMAN: You know, it's got to be a chilling effect on the willingness of prosecutors or even FBI agents to become involved in politically sensitive investigations that rub up against the interests of a White House, that could antagonize a White House, because they can see the debris field that they have to walk through to do what, in their judgment, is the right thing.
GREENE: David Laufman, former chief of the Justice Department's counterintelligence and export control section, serving there from 2014 to 2018, thanks so much. We appreciate it.
LAUFMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.