Roger Stone’s Greatest Liability

The longtime Trump adviser’s attention-seeking ways made him an easy target for Robert Mueller.

Roger Stone
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Roger Stone opened the door early Friday morning to a group of gun-toting FBI agents and a seven-count federal indictment—the latest arrest in the Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Robert Mueller’s chatty, informative indictment underscores Stone’s fierce loyalty to Donald Trump, and proves a larger point, too: Character is destiny. Roger Stone’s downfall is the logical conclusion of continuing to act like Roger Stone.

Stone is perfectly suited for the age of clickbait. He’s got a flamboyant wardrobe, a Nixon tattoo, and a flair for getting people to laugh at him. He has a brand: truculent and unjustified self-confidence, meandering trash-talking, and a penchant for lashing out at perceived enemies. These things make him a reliable eye-catcher. Nobody ever changed the channel when Stone was trying to talk himself out of trouble. But these same qualities make Stone and people like him easy targets for a ruthless prosecutor. The indictment depicts Stone acting in private more or less the way he acts in public. The special counsel has charged Stone with  five counts of lying to Congress, one count of witness tampering, and one count of obstructing a House intelligence probe into Russian interference.

The indictment charges that Stone eagerly pitched himself to the Trump campaign as the man with connections to WikiLeaks (thinly disguised as “Organization 1” in the document); that he vigorously mined his network to suggest questions for WikiLeaks to answer, amid a media blitz in which he touted upcoming leaks about Trump's Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton. The indictment identifies Stone’s WikiLeaks connection only as “Person 1,” but news reports have repeatedly identified him as the author and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi. The indictment identifies Stone’s favorite media contact as “Person 2,” someone who is widely believed to be Randy Credico, a dog-fancying talk-show host who comes off as a slightly dim off-Broadway understudy for the role of Stone. The common theme of Stone’s compulsive texts and emails to Corsi, Credico, and the Trump campaign was not just an appetite for dirt on Clinton, but Stone’s own relentless self-promotion. It appears he was successful in getting the attention he wanted—the indictment reveals that a “high-ranking Trump Campaign official” sent Stone a text message reading “well done” after WikiLeaks released stolen Clinton campaign emails in October 2016.

None of this was a crime. The indictment doesn’t suggest that Stone directed, or even knew of in advance, specific illegal acts like hacking. Being thirsty for leaks doesn’t violate federal law. But when congressional investigations began, Stone’s combativeness became a liability, as it has for so many Trump associates. According to Mueller’s probe, Stone kept lying. The indictment said Stone lied in a letter to members of a congressional intelligence committee about not having any communications related to its investigation, then doubled down under oath. Court documents also say that Stone concealed his many text and email conversations with people, including Corsi and Credico, in which he was seeking dirt about Clinton from WikiLeaks. Mueller’s account states that Stone lied about his efforts to contact WikiLeaks through Corsi, trying to portray the hapless Credico as his WikiLeaks contact. The indictment also says Stone lied about his discussions with the Trump campaign concerning these efforts, along with his knowledge of WikiLeaks’ upcoming releases. Stone idolizes Nixon and aspires to dirty tricks—this, too, is part of his brand. It may not have occurred to him to do anything but lie.

Most cinematically, the special counsel charges that Stone turned on Credico, bullying and threatening him in an effort to get Credico to shut up or support Stone’s story. The indictment says that Stone quoted Richard Nixon: “Stonewall it. Plead the fifth. Anything to save the plan.” Stone, according to the indictment, also invoked The Godfather: Part II, telling Credico to do a “Frank Pentangeli,” referencing a character who tells Congress he knows nothing of Michael Corleone and then kills himself in prison. Perhaps Stone hoped that Credico hadn’t watched the whole movie. Eventually, Stone allegedly turned to abuse and threats, calling Credico a rat and a stoolie, threatening to take his dog away, and telling him to “prepare to die,” the indictment said. Stone did all of this in writing because—again—Roger Stone can’t stop being Roger Stone. Credico, for his part, repeatedly advised Stone to smarten up, stop perjuring himself, and tell the truth. When Randy Credico is the most sensible person in your indictment, you’ve fallen upon hard times.

Most people wouldn’t perjure themselves in easily detectable ways to Congress and threaten a talkative witness in writing. But Roger Stone isn’t most people. Roger Stone is a character lovingly crafted by Roger Stone. And now Stone is facing prison time because he couldn’t seem to grasp the distinction between a television persona and a prudent response to a federal investigation. The lesson is an old one, drilled into our heads repeatedly in the past two years: Media strategies are not sound legal strategies. Mueller continues to take down Trump associates who could not bring themselves to lawyer up, assert their Fifth Amendment rights, and stop riding the cable-news circuit. But it’s not clear that any of them—including the president himself—have learned that lesson.

A white-collar-criminal defense attorney’s hardest job often is persuading clients to shut up. Their clients see themselves as Masters of the Universe and have and have enjoyed great success by being dynamic, decisive, and persuasive. They have a hard time accepting that the very volubility that got them where they are can send them to federal prison. But it’s getting easier. Lawyers used to have to make 15-year-old references to Martha Stewart’s conviction to wheedle clients into a prudent silence. In the age of Mueller, they can just point to the front page of nearly any newspaper.