The Morning Dispatch: The Swift Backlash to the Roger Stone Commutation

Plus, expect more bad news on the pandemic front.

Happy Monday! The past few days have been filled with some incredibly silly news—most of it related to canned beans. We hope you were able to tune it all out and enjoy your weekend like a normal person.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • As of Sunday night, 3,302,695 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the United States (an increase of 56,770 from yesterday) and 135,176 deaths have been attributed to the virus (an increase of 399 from yesterday), according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, leading to a mortality rate among confirmed cases of 4.1 percent (the true mortality rate is likely much lower, between 0.4 percent and 1.4 percent, but it’s impossible to determine precisely due to incomplete testing regimens). Of 40,282,176 coronavirus tests conducted in the United States (728,781 conducted since yesterday), 8.2 percent have come back positive.

  • President Trump officially announced he would be commuting the sentence of Roger Stone—one of his longtime friends—who had been convicted of obstructing justice, lying to Congress, and witness tampering in relation to investigations into the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Stone, 67, was facing 40 months in prison for 7 felony convictions.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced on Sunday he will call former special counsel Robert Mueller to testify before Congress. Mueller broke his near yearlong public silence over the weekend with a Washington Post op-ed defending the prosecution of Roger Stone.

  • China and Iran are reportedly nearing a large-scale economic and military partnership agreement, which would lead to China investing billions of dollars in Iran’s beleaguered economy and involve joint military training exercises and weapons development between the two countries.

  • President Trump acknowledged in an interview late last week that he authorized a 2018 cyberattack against Russia’s Internet Research Agency.

  • As a resurgent coronavirus has stalled—and in some cases reversed—reopening efforts in Texas, Joe Biden is gaining on President Trump in the Lone Star state. A new CBS News/YouGov poll has Trump leading by only 1 in the state, while a Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler survey shows Biden up by 5 points.

Roger Stone Is a Free Man

President Trump commuted the sentence of Roger Stone on Friday night after eleventh-hour pleas from the former Republican operative. Stone had been expected to report to prison this week to serve out his sentence for witness tampering, obstruction, and lying to Congress under oath.

The White House took aim at Robert Mueller’s Russia probe—which initiated the investigation into Stone—to explain the president’s decision, referring to Mueller’s investigation as the “collusion delusion” and leveling accusations against “overzealous prosecutors” and “activist-jurors” involved with Stone’s trial. “Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump presidency,” the statement reads. “[He] is now a free man!”

Mueller defended himself and his special counsel team in a Washington Post op-ed over the weekend. “Russian efforts to interfere in our political system, and the essential question of whether those efforts involved the Trump campaign, required investigation,” he wrote. “We made every decision in Stone’s case, as in all our cases, based solely on the facts and the law and in accordance with the rule of law. The women and men who conducted these investigations and prosecutions acted with the highest integrity. Claims to the contrary are false.”

Mueller’s investigation revealed Stone’s contacts with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and hacker Guccifer 2.0 during the 2016 campaign. Stone was tried and convicted in November 2019 and sentenced to 40 months in prison in February.

Stone reached out to Guccifer 2.0—a persona created by Russian military intelligence who claimed responsibility for a series of cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee (DNC)—during the 2016 election, and maintained extensive contact with Assange from fall 2016 into 2017. An investigation by The Atlantic and recently publicized transcripts uncovered by the FBI revealed the extent of Stone’s communications with Assange, which he denied before the House Intelligence Committee. “If the US government moves on you I will bring down the entire house of cards,” Stone wrote to Assange in 2017.

Stone was convicted on one count of witness tampering as well. In an effort to hide his communications with WikiLeaks from Congress, Stone threatened radio host Randy Credico—his reported intermediary with Assange—into silence. Stone ordered Credico “do a Frank Pentangeli,” referring to a character from The Godfather Part II who perjured himself to protect his mob boss. The GOP operative also reportedly threatened Credico and his service dog with violence. “You are a rat. A stoolie. You backstab your friends-run your mouth my lawyers are dying Rip you to shreds,” Stone wrote. (Errors in the original.)

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson rejected his various explanations and excuses when she sentenced him. “He was not prosecuted, as some have complained, for standing up for the president,” she said. “He was prosecuted for covering up for the president.”

Trump’s commutation of Stone’s sentence several months later seemingly confirmed Judge Jackson’s suspicions. Several politicians—from both sides of the political aisle—have criticized the president’s decision to ease Stone’s punishment as a boldfaced admission of his involvement in the charges against his longtime political ally.

“President Trump’s decision to commute the sentence of top campaign advisor Roger Stone, who could directly implicate him in criminal misconduct, is an act of staggering corruption,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Before Stone’s commutation, Attorney General William Barr said Stone had received a proper and legitimate trial. “I think the prosecution was righteous and I think the sentence the judge ultimately gave was fair,” Barr said last Wednesday in an interview with ABC News. Barr privately advised Trump not to extend clemency to Stone.

Sen. Mitt Romney and other prominent Republicans condemned the commutation as an abuse of executive power:

Sen. Pat Toomey also thought Trump’s involvement in Stone’s ordeal was a mistake. Stone was “duly convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering, and obstructing a congressional investigation conducted by a Republican-led committee,” Toomey said in a statement. “Any objections to Mr. Stone’s conviction and trial should be resolved through the appeals process.”

Stone praised Trump in response to the commutation. “The president has saved my life,” Stone said. “And he’s given me the opportunity to fight for vindication.”

COVID Is Getting Worse

Five months into our pandemic, we’re back in a place where every day brings a new wave of bad COVID news. The picture is grim whether you’re looking at the nation as a whole or the growing number of individual hotspots. A month ago, we were averaging about 20,000 new COVID cases per day; now that number is 60,000 a day, and still skyrocketing. On Sunday, Florida alone reported more than 15,000 new cases of the disease—the largest single-day spike for any state at any point in the pandemic.

With earlier hopes that the virus would offer a breather over the summer months now thoroughly disabused, the debate is raging again over whether U.S. schools will be able safely to reopen in the fall. It’s an extremely thorny issue for a number of reasons. On the one hand, kids tend to be vectors of infectious spread when clustered together (although the jury is still out on how widely they spread COVID in particular). On the other, keeping schools shut down carries astronomical costs for both kids themselves and their families, not to mention America’s education infrastructure.

The Trump administration is firmly among the “reopen come what may” camp. President Trump tweeted last week that he disagreed with the CDC’s “very tough and expensive guidelines for opening schools,” complaining that “they are asking schools to do very impractical things.” Meanwhile, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos threatened that schools that declined to reopen could lose their federal funding, telling Fox News’s Chris Wallace on Sunday that “There’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous.” (DeVos was unable to answer when Wallace pressed her to cite the authority under which the administration would withhold congressionally authorized funding.)

The coronavirus testing situation continues to deteriorate: Despite mammoth lab capacity increases over recent months, we simply can’t keep up with the latest surge to ensure tests are there when we need them. Last week, Andrew wrote about how this added stress on the testing system has led to hang-ups in supply chains and ballooning turnaround times for tests as a result.

One thing we didn’t consider at the time: How delays in testing also contribute to issues like stress on hospital systems. One Morning Dispatch reader who is a practicing physician in New York writes: “We are screening everyone admitted to the hospital, but now instead of a 6 hour turnaround we have 12-24 hour turnaround times, and until we get the result (which is thankfully negative about 90-95% of the time, maybe even more) we have to isolate the patient, taking up single rooms, [personal protective equipment], etc.”

Worth Your Time

  • A top writer for Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show resigned Friday after a CNN report from Oliver Darcy detailed that the writer had an extensive history of bigoted pseudonymous posts on an internet chat board. The writer, Blake Neff, joined Fox News from The Daily Caller, and quickly solidified a role as a trusted source for Carlson’s commentary and analysis on his top-rated cable news show. “Anything [Carlson is] reading off the teleprompter, the first draft was written by me,” Neff recently told Dartmouth Alumni magazine. Top Fox News execs denounced the “horrific racist, misogynistic and homophobic behavior” reflected in the posts.

  • On July 4, faculty members at Princeton sent a list of progressive demands to the university’s president, calling on him to “reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary,” and “constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” The letter now has hundreds of signatories, but Princeton classics professor Joshua Katz believes most signed not because they agree with all the letters’ demands, but because they agree with some of them and it “felt it was good to act as ‘allies.’” He writes in a piece for Quillette: “Independence of thought is considered the hallmark of academia, but everyone deserves it.”

  • Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson uploaded several anti-Semitic posts to Instagram last week lauding Louis Farrakhan and quoting Adolf Hitler—albeit inaccurately—as saying that Jews “will extort America” and have a “plan for world domination.” Jackson apologized for not “realiz[ing] what this passage was saying,” and the Eagles fined him, saying that “in order to remain on the team,” Jackson must “commit to supporting his words with actions.” New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who is Jewish, said he has invited Jackson to the Holocaust and African American History museums so the two could educate one another. In the Detroit Free Press, Mitch Albom explains why words like Jackson’s are so harmful. “DeSean Jackson got his Hitler quote wrong. But here’s one that’s accurate. It comes from Hitler’s autobiography, ‘Mein Kampf,’ which, despite our recent trend of banning offensive works, you can still buy on Amazon: ‘The personification of the devil, as the symbol of all evil, assumes the living shape of the Jew.’ That’s the kind of venom Jewish people have been living with for centuries, before and after Hitler tried to wipe them from the face of the earth.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Jake Tapper joined Sarah and Steve for the latest episode of The Dispatch Podcast to discuss The Outpost, a new movie based on Tapper’s book about a brutal—and heroic—battle between a small team of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Taliban fighters at a remote base in Afghanistan.

  • Many on the religious right often conflate “religious power” with “religious liberty.” David’s latest French Press argues that there’s an important difference between the two: Americans enjoy more religious liberty than we’ve ever had in our history, David writes, but the declining political power of conservative white Protestants has given them the impression that they’re losing the battle.

  • Conservatives spend a lot of time talking about the anti-Americanism of some segments on the left. But as Jonah writes in his latest G-File, many members of the intellectual right’s ascendant “post-liberal” faction are similarly opposed to America’s founding principles.

  • The latest Ruminant features a solo Jonah discussing language, the contemporary philosophical debates within the conservative movement, and whether or not the term “Eskimo” is still politically correct.

  • On the site today, Brad Polumbo talks to international students who are navigating a very difficult situation in the wake of the Trump administration’s announcement that it will extend visas for those whose schools do not offer in-person instruction.

  • Cancel culture is just the latest incarnation of public shaming, a trend that dates back at least to the days of people being put in the stocks or forced into public labor. Christian Schneider explains why it’s not going away, either.

Let Us Know

Article II Section 2 of the Constitution says the President “shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

George Mason—delegate to the Constitutional Convention—refused to sign the Constitution, in part because of this provision. The president may “frequently pardon crimes which were advised by himself,” Mason argued. “If he has the power of granting pardons before indictment, or conviction, may he not stop inquiry and prevent detection?”

James Madison’s response: “If the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds to believe he will shelter him, the House of Representatives can impeach him; they can remove him if found guilty.”

Our question for you: 232 years later—and trying to remove yourself from the present moment as much as possible—who was right?

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Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Nate Hochman (@njhochman), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Johnny Louis/Getty Images.