The four prosecutors running the criminal case against a former adviser to Donald Trump have quit after the US President intervened in the case.
The lawyers stepped down after the US Justice Department said it would take the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek for Roger Stone, a long-time ally and confidante of Mr Trump.
Stone was convicted in November 2019 of charges including lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.
The Justice Department's decision came just hours after Mr Trump complained on Twitter that the recommended sentence – of seven to nine years' jail – for Stone was "very horrible and unfair".
This is a horrible and very unfair situation. The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice! https://t.co/rHPfYX6Vbv— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 11, 2020
The prosecutors made their recommendation on Monday night (Washington time) – before Mr Trump's tweet – and the department said they did not speak to the White House about it.
But Tuesday's decision to seek a shorter sentence raised questions about political interference and whether Mr Trump's views hold unusual sway over the Justice Department, which is meant to operate independently of the White House in criminal investigations and prosecutions.
In a tweet early on Tuesday, Mr Trump said the case against Stone was a "miscarriage of justice".
Related: Stone apologises after picture of judge and crosshairs
A Justice Department official said authorities decided to step in and seek a shorter sentence because they had been taken by surprise by the initial recommendation. The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said prosecutors had told the department to expect a shorter recommendation.
The departures of the four lawyers came abruptly after the Justice Department's move, are widely seen as a protest against the Trump administration's handling of the Roger Stone case.
After the lawyers quit, Justice Department officials filed a revised sentencing memorandum with the judge, arguing its initial recommendation could be "considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances", but that it would defer to the court. None of the original prosecutors in Stone's case signed the revised memo.
Meanwhile, Democrats decried the decision, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling for an investigation by the DOJ's Inspector General.
House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff said it would be a blatant abuse of power if the Justice Department intervened on behalf of Trump.
Mr Trump said later that he didn't speak to Justice officials.
"I would be able to do it if I wanted," he said.
"I have the absolute right to do it. I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn't believe, but I didn't speak to them."