If Donald Trump’s advisers had only watched The Wire, many of the president’s aides and associates might have saved themselves a great deal of legal trouble.
A scene from the HBO crime drama shows a character named Stringer Bell trying to broker peace between rival drug dealers, and trying to get them to abide by Robert’s Rules of Order. When the meeting adjourns, Bell walks up to a subordinate, who is busy scribbling on a legal pad.
“Motherfucker, what is that?” Bell asks.
“The Robert Rules say we gotta have minutes for a meeting. These the minutes,” he replies.
Astonished, Bell snatches the paper out of his hand. “Nigga, is you takin’ notes on a criminal fuckin’ conspiracy? What the fuck is you thinking, man?”
To have to apply that insight—that taking notes when engaging in a criminal conspiracy is a bad idea—to a presidential campaign would be unusual. But these are unusual times, and when it comes to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign, it’s advice that the president’s advisers should have taken seriously. The more than half a dozen indictments of Trump’s former associates—including those of his former personal attorney, his campaign chair, and his national-security adviser—are built around blatant violations of the Stringer Bell rule.
Take Roger Stone, who was indicted Friday morning and arrested by FBI agents at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. According to the indictment, Stone—who is charged with obstruction of justice, making false statements, and witness tampering—not only lied to Congress, but attempted to persuade another witness to do so as well. Stone “spoke and texted repeatedly” with the unnamed witness, who has been identified in press reports as the conservative radio personality Randy Credico, to try to get him to “do a ‘Frank Pentangeli’ before the House intelligence committee in order to avoid contradicting STONE’s testimony.” (Pentangeli is a character from the mafia film The Godfather: Part II who lies to a congressional committee.)
The indictment also states that Stone regularly emailed with Trump-campaign officials about the timing of releases from the organization WikiLeaks—document dumps that were meant to damage Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton. The documents were released by WikiLeaks after being stolen by an officer of Russia’s military intelligence directorate, the GRU. Believing that the messaging service WhatsApp was shielded from government surveillance, Stone texted Matt Boyle, a reporter for the pro-Trump website Breitbart News, “Spoke to my friend in London last night. The payload is still coming,” an apparent reference to WikiLeaks.
But Stone is hardly the only example of a Trump adviser breaking the Stringer Bell rule.
In July, Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, who has been charged with fraud and tax evasion, was jailed after prosecutors claimed that he sought to use “phone calls, text messages and encrypted apps” to shape the accounts of other potential witnesses in the investigation. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former campaign surrogate and national-security adviser, who was indicted for lying about his interactions with Russian officials regarding sanctions, was undone in part by emails that showed he “was in close touch with other senior members of the Trump transition team both before and after he spoke with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, about American sanctions against Russia.”
Emails also showed that George Papadopoulos, the Trump foreign-policy adviser whose remarks to a foreign diplomat about obtaining Clinton’s emails set the Russia investigation into motion, had kept the campaign apprised of his outreach efforts to Moscow. Papadopoulos ultimately served time for lying to federal investigators. Prosecutors also cited extensive email communication in charges that Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, engaged in illegal lobbying on behalf of the Ukrainian government. Prosecutors said Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen sent invoices for the hush money he used to facilitate the silence of women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump, in violation of federal campaign-finance laws.
Although they haven’t resulted in criminal charges, other documents that have been politically damaging for the White House show the president’s surrogates eager to cooperate with Russia. There’s Donald Trump Jr.’s response to an email offering “dirt” on Clinton from Russian sources: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” There’s the former Trump adviser K. T. McFarland’s emails regarding Russian sanctions: “If there is a tit-for-tat escalation Trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia, which has just thrown USA election to him.” Mueller has also reportedly obtained an early draft letter in which Trump fires former FBI Director James Comey, which explicitly mentions the Russia investigation as part of the president’s decision to sack him.
Trump surrogates’ extensive documentation of their activities has given both federal investigators and the general public a trail to follow when attempting to discern the nature of the president’s relationship with the Russian government, and to prosecute those trying to obstruct the investigation. Which is the kind of thing Stringer Bell was worried about. If you’re going to engage in a criminal conspiracy, it’s a bad idea to take notes.
Just before the end of the meeting in The Wire, one of the distributors, Proposition Joe, expresses satisfaction at the outcome of the gathering.
“For a cold-ass crew of gangsters,” Prop Joe observes, “y’all carried it like Republicans and shit.”