Happy Friday! “What the hell was that all about?” That’s what Trump asked his rally goers in Colorado Springs last night on the subject of Parasite winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards. (It’s an excellent movie, by the way.) Coincidentally, it’s also what your Morning Dispatchers often find ourselves asking whenever we wrap up a conversation with Jonah. But we digress.
Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories
Longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison for obstructing Congress, lying to investigators, and witness tampering.
More details emerged surrounding President Trump’s decision to make Richard Grenell acting director of national intelligence. According to The New York Times, intelligence officials briefed House lawmakers last week that Russia is attempting to interfere in the 2020 campaign to reelect Trump. The president is worried Democrats will use this against him.
Some 2020 election numbers: Tuesday’s debate was the most-watched Democratic contest of all time, with nearly 20 million viewers tuning in. Elizabeth Warren has raised more than $5 million since the debate, while the Trump campaign reported $200 million cash on hand at the end of January.
The Criminal Justice System: ‘Get Me Roger Stone’
After an uproar over the Department of Justice’s revised sentencing recommendation, Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced Roger Stone to three years and four months in prison.
Last November, a jury found Stone guilty on seven counts of obstructing Congress, lying to investigators, and witness tampering. The evidence presented at trial was overwhelming that Stone had tried to thwart the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election because, in his own words, the truth would have “looked terrible” for President Trump. In doing so, he repeatedly lied to the Republican-controlled committee, denying that he had spoken to anyone associated with the campaign about his contacts with Wikileaks:
In one of the trial’s most revealing moments, [deputy campaign manager Rick] Gates recounted a July 31, 2016, phone call between Mr. Stone and Mr. Trump, just days after WikiLeaks had released a trove of emails embarrassing the Clinton campaign. As soon as he hung up with Mr. Stone, Mr. Gates testified, Mr. Trump declared that “more information” was coming, an apparent reference to future releases from WikiLeaks that would rattle his political rival.
While some of Stone’s ardent defenders, including the president, have pointed to the jury forewoman’s “significant bias” because of her association with the Democratic Party, our own David French has provided a lengthy analysis of why this argument doesn’t hold much legal water and a fellow juror has said “[w]ithout her in the room, we would have returned the same verdict, and we would have returned it more quickly and without looking as deeply into the evidence.” Regardless, as French noted, “[t]he question isn’t whether Hart is a Democrat, it’s whether she hid facts that would have provided a valid basis to challenge her presence on the jury.”
In its initial sentencing recommendation, Justice Department prosecutors asked for seven to nine years based on several aggravating factors, including threats Stone made against a witness he sought to block from testifying to Congress, Randy Credico, and his dog. (In his grand jury testimony, Credico testified that he was not living at home and had taken to wearing a disguise out of fear but later said he did not feel threatened by Stone’s comments.)
The next day, however, the department filed another, softer sentencing recommendation signed by the acting chief of the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s office criminal division, John Crabb. It stated that the initial calculation of 87 to 108 months was “excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances” and did “not accurately reflect the Department of Justice’s position” because the enhancements “disproportionately escalate” the sentence. Although it did not definitively provide a new recommendation, it suggested that a sentencing range of 37 to 46 months was “more in line with the typical sentences imposed in obstruction cases.”
This prompted all four of the prosecutors on the case to withdraw their appearances and one of them to resign from the department entirely. And, naturally, there were some presidential tweets during all of this.
But for anyone who has enjoyed a few (or in this Dispatcher’s case, all) episodes of Law & Order knows, prosecutors don’t decide sentences. In federal court, the judge must correctly calculate the proper range based on the sentencing guidelines—with or without contradicting DoJ memos—but then is free to depart from that range. (The guidelines used to be mandatory, but the Supreme Court struck down that part in 2005.)
And so entered Judge Amy Berman Jackson Thursday morning.
The first part of the hearing was dedicated to calculating the correct range under the guidelines. This included an interesting (and it appears unresolved) legal question about whether a victim’s “subjective understanding” of the threat—in this case whether Credico took Stone’s words seriously—is relevant to whether the enhancement should apply. Crabb stuck by the initial sentencing memo’s recommendation. In fact, he appeared to support all of the initial enhancements, including the ones that the supplemental memo tried to walk back “for the reasons set forth in the original sentencing memorandum.”
This raised a lot of eyebrows—inside and outside the courtroom—as to why there had been such a fuss over the original sentencing recommendations at all. As Aaron Blake put it, “[i]f the Justice Department was just going to argue the same points from the first recommendation, why overrule the sentencing recommendation and make it look like Trump was dictating how his Justice Department prosecuted his ally?” Indeed.
In the end, Judge Jackson split the difference between the two memos based on her own calculations and adopted a sentencing range of 70 to 87 months.
Next, Judge Jackson addressed the sentencing memo debacle with Crabb, which he in turn blamed on “a miscommunication between the attorney general and the United States attorney.” He confirmed that the initial memo had been consistent with DoJ policy and that it had been submitted after consultations with Main Justice (this is the shorthand used for the Offices of the Deputy Attorney General and Attorney General). He would not, however, answer whether he wrote or was instructed to write the second memo that he signed.
The judge went on to say that “the government’s initial memorandum was thorough, well-researched and supported” and rejected “any suggestion that the prosecutors in this case did anything untoward.” She continued, however, that she would have believed that seven to nine years was too long regardless of the memo controversy, and while she found the president’s comments “entirely inappropriate,” she would not be influenced by them or hold them against Stone.
Just before pronouncing the sentence, she finished by saying:
“[Stone] was not prosecuted, as some have claimed, for standing up for the president. He was prosecuted for covering up for the president. … The defendant lied about a matter of great national and international significance. This is not campaign hijinks. This is not just Roger being Roger. … There was nothing unfair, phony, or disgraceful about the investigation or the prosecution. … The truth still exists. The truth still matters. Roger Stone’s insistence that it doesn’t [poses] a threat to our most fundamental institutions, to the very foundation of our democracy. … The dismay and disgust at the defendant’s belligerence should transcend party.”
And with that, she sentenced Stone to 40 months, ending months of theatrics. But the drama at DOJ may just be beginning.
Trump’s ‘Acting’ Cabinet
President Trump provoked cries of protest on Wednesday from Democrats and many intelligence professionals when he announced that he would replace his acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, with Richard Grenell, who currently serves as Trump’s ambassador to Germany.
The move initially raised eyebrows because Maguire, who took over the acting job after Dan Coats’ term ended last August, had been considered likely to be nominated to fill the post for a full term. A former vice admiral in the Navy and director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Maguire had years of intelligence experience under his belt. Grenell, by contrast, is a career communications professional with no such experience: Prior to his ambassadorship, he worked as a spokesman at the United Nations for the Bush administration and had a stint on Fox News.
So why’d Trump make the switch? Reporting yesterday from the Washington Post and New York Times indicated that Trump decided to axe Maguire after he became concerned about his loyalty. Maguire’s offense? A Maguire deputy had warned the House Intelligence Committee last week that Russia was planning to meddle again — on behalf of Trump — in the 2020 election. Trump, the Times reported, was angry that the DNI shared that information with Democrats who could use it as a weapon against him.
There is no serious dispute that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. “I am confident that the Russians meddled in this election, as is the entire intelligence community,” said then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo. “This threat is real.” Top national security officials of both parties have supported this conclusion.
Some of the problems here are obvious. If the reporting is accurate, removing Maguire for Grenell shows that Trump still puts a higher premium on personal loyalty than on having the proper qualifications for even the most sensitive government jobs; the DNI is a Cabinet-level position that oversees America’s 17 intelligence networks. It shows that he remains testy about acknowledging the fact that Russia has interfered in U.S. elections on his behalf and seems likely to do so again; a president whose instinct is often to cast doubts that such interference is occurring or to minimize its impact is unlikely to be a president who works diligently to prevent or punish such interference.
Yet the bigger problem is more subtle—and more systemic. Why is it that Trump is able to turn on a dime, fire Maguire, and promote Grenell, all totally unilaterally? Because Maguire was himself only serving in an acting capacity, never having undergone the process of Senate review and approval that top-level administration officials must undergo to be fully instated in their offices.
A look across the executive branch shows that Maguire—now Grenell—is not alone in this. Following the resignation of Kirstjen Nielsen as secretary of homeland security last April, President Trump assigned the role to Customs and Border Protection commissioner Kevin McAleenan. Under federal law, an acting Cabinet secretary can serve only 210 days, but Trump never nominated McAleenan to the full post; rather, when McAleenan’s time was up, he resigned, and Trump appointed another acting secretary—Chad Wolf—in his place. Other agencies currently headed by acting officials include Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Citizenship and Immigration Services. Even Mick Mulvaney, who has served as Trump’s chief of staff for more than a year, is still merely the acting chief of staff.
Relying on acting officials suits Trump’s ad-hoc managing style. “It’s easier to make moves when they’re acting,” Trump told CBS News last year. “I like acting because I can move so quickly. It gives me more flexibility.”
But it also strips a key aptitude and suitability check on appointees—the necessity of passing muster in the Senate—out of the executive branch. The president, of course, is entitled to have the people he wants running the executive branch running it; if he wants loyalists, he’ll have loyalists. But the Constitution requires loyalists who’ve gotten approval from the Senate, in this case a GOP-controlled Senate.
As Grenell himself clarified yesterday, Trump has no plans to install him in a permanent role as director of national intelligence. Rather, he’ll serve in the role until Trump gets around to finding someone else to nominate. But time will tell if Trump decides this is a status quo he can deal with after all.
Worth Your Time
Bernie Sanders insinuated in Tuesday’s Democratic debate that some of the “Bernie Bros” wreaking havoc on the internet on his behalf might be Russian bots attempting to influence the election. Read Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tony Romm in the Washington Post on why experts aren’t so sure that’s the case.
Some of the best writing out there pairs a subject that’s an utterly mundane, uninterrogated part of our lives with an author who’s fanatically devoted to that subject, knows everything there is to know about it, and is absolutely dying to share that fandom with you. Which is why you ought to take a minute to read this essay from Bon Appétit’s Alex Beggs, about potato chips, Frito Lay, and the creation, marketing, and cultural takeover of the culinary concept of “crisp.”
We don’t know why, but writing that last entry sparked a recollection in us of one of the greatest and goofiest little essays Andy Ferguson ever wrote for The Weekly Standard, way back in 2001, on “Self-Distraction.” It’s short and amazing; we advise against reading it in the bathroom or a board meeting or anywhere else where it would be inappropriate to laugh aloud.
Presented Without Comment
Presented With One Comment
Elizabeth Warren has been decrying super PACs and candidates who benefit from them the entire campaign.
Presented Without Comment: White House Chief of Staff Edition
New Westworld. March 15. We’re ready.
Toeing the Company Line
A Morning Dispatch/Remnant crossover! Andrew joined Jonah on the podcast yesterday to discuss the Democratic debate, movie references that go over Andrew’s head, and Midwestern charm.
A bonus Vital Interests newsletter from Thomas Joscelyn a devastating takedown of an op-ed the New York Times ran from Sirajuddin Haqqani. Not disclosed in the op-ed: “Sirajuddin Haqqani has been designated as a terrorist by both the U.S. and the United Nations. He leads a designated terrorist organization, the Haqqani Network, which is an integral part of the Taliban. Other Haqqani Network leaders have been designated as terrorists as well.” And while the al-Qaeda-linked leader claimed yesterday to want peace, a video from the Haqqani network last month praised suicide bombing that kill “Crusader invaders.” Subscribe to Vital Interests here.
Let Us Know
McDonald’s announced a limited-edition set of Big Mac-scented candles. Question No. 1: How great is America? Question No. 2: What other foods deserve the candle treatment?
Wendy’s spicy chicken nuggets
Cinnabon’s … cinnabon
Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream
Krispy Kreme’s glazed donut
Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza
Wild Wing Cafe’s Atomic Meltdown wings
Photograph of Roger Stone by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.