WASHINGTON: Donald Trump's longtime ally Roger Stone was sentenced on Thursday (Feb 20) to 40 months in prison for impeding a congressional investigation, in a case that ignited a firestorm over the US president's political interference in the justice system.
Stone, a veteran Republican operative and one of the president's oldest confidants, was convicted in November of lying to Congress, tampering with a witness and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to cheat in the 2016 election.
"The truth still matters," said US District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson as she handed down the sentence to Stone, who will remain free while his request for a new trial is considered.
"Roger Stone's insistence that it doesn't, his belligerence, his pride in his own lies are a threat to our most fundamental institutions, to the very foundation of our democracy."
Trump said soon after he believed Stone had a "very good chance" of being cleared in the long run, accusing the jury without evidence of being "tainted."
The president controversially commuted the sentences this week of nearly a dozen criminals with links to his friends and political allies - including a corrupt politician and a tax fraud police chief.
But he ruled out immediately issuing a Stone the pardon many had been expecting.
"I'm going to let this process play out," he said at an event in Las Vegas. "At some point I'll make a determination ... We're waiting."
Trump sparked outrage by decrying a "miscarriage of justice" after prosecutors he smeared as corrupt recommended Stone be jailed for up to nine years, in accordance with federal sentencing guidelines.
The president has attacked the jury previously, as well as Jackson, who last year jailed former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort for unlawful lobbying and witness tampering.
Attorney General Bill Barr, who has been blasted for being too close to Trump, personally intervened to have the "extreme and excessive" recommendation withdrawn, prompting all four prosecutors to quit the case.
At Thursday's hearing, Jackson hit out at the "extraneous commentary" surrounding the case and "the unprecedented actions of the Department of Justice within the past week."
But she added that she chose a lower sentence because she was moved by letters from Stone's relatives and friends, casting the 67-year-old grandfather as a caring family man who had helped NFL players with brain injuries, rescued dogs and supported criminal justice reform.
Stone is the sixth aide of Trump - who was impeached last year for abusing his power but acquitted by the Senate - to be convicted of charges arising from special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian election interference.
Barr said the president's comments had had no impact on his the decision, but has found himself vilified by Democrats who accuse him and the president of undermining the rule of law.
In addition, more than 2,000 former Justice Department officials have signed a statement calling for Barr to resign.
In a rare public rebuke, the attorney general said Trump's Twitter pronouncements in ongoing cases were making his job "impossible."
His attempt to distance himself from the president was met with scepticism however by critics who accuse Barr of having repeatedly acted more like Trump's personal lawyer than a public servant.
'COVERING UP' FOR TRUMP
And Trump has continued in any case to be outspoken in his support for Stone, who appeared in court in a striped suit and a polka-dot tie.
The self-avowed "dirty trickster" was convicted of lying in testimony to Congress about acting as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks, which released documents hacked by Russia that embarrassed rival Hillary Clinton during the 2016 White House race.
The seven-count indictment also accused Stone of threatening an associate and his dog to stop him cooperating with investigators.
Stone accused jury members of being biased against him and appealed to overturn their verdict.
Jackson had previously forbidden Stone from posting on social media about his trial, after he shared a picture of her on Instagram with what appeared to be the crosshairs of a gun sight.
She said Thursday his actions had risked the safety of the court, and rejected any suggestion that the case against him was brought over his political advocacy.
"He was not convicted and is not being sentenced for exercising his first amendment rights, his support of the president's campaign or his policies," said Jackson.
"He was not prosecuted, as some have complained, for standing up for the president. He was prosecuted for covering up for the president."