Roger Stone’s best trick was always his upper-class-twit wardrobe. He seemed such a farcical character, such a Klaxon-alarm-from-a-mile-away goofball—who could take him seriously?
Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen: They had tradecraft. They didn’t troll people on Instagram or blab to reporters. They behaved in the way you would expect of people betraying their country: conscious of the magnitude of their acts, determined to avoid the limelight.
Stone could not have been more different. He clowned, he cavorted, he demanded limelight—which made it in some ways impossible to imagine that he could have done anything seriously amiss. Bank robbers don’t go on Twitter to announce, “Hey, I’m going to rob a bank, sorry, not sorry.” Or so you’d expect.
Yet Stone is a central figure in one of the greatest scandals in U.S. history. Ames, Hanssen, the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss—none of them worked with a foreign intelligence service to help a candidate for president of the United States. Stone did. And now he will receive a commutation of his sentence from the president he served.
The amazing thing about the Trump-Stone story is how much of it happened in the full light of day. A (very) partial timeline:
On August 4, 2016, Stone told listeners to a paid conference call that Julian Assange would continue to release information “that is going to roil this race.”
On August 8, he told a Republican group that he had been in contact with Assange, and more drops were coming.
On August 21, he tweeted: “Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel,” evidently referencing the then-forthcoming cache of emails phished by Russian intelligence from John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
On October 2, a Sunday, he tweeted that the next WikiLeaks dump would come on Wednesday.
When Wednesday came and went with no dump, Stone tweeted, “Libs thinking Assange will stand down are wishful thinking. Payload coming #Lockthemup.” Stone reaffirmed his prediction on Thursday. The dump came Friday, October 7.
Stone was simultaneously in communication with the Trump campaign and the candidate Donald Trump. The former Trump deputy campaign chair Rick Gates testified at Stone’s trial in November 2019 that he witnessed Trump take a call from Stone after the first WikiLeaks release in July. Less than a minute after the call ended, Trump told Gates that another release would follow later in the campaign.
Trump declared in writing to the Mueller investigation that he did not recall discussing WikiLeaks with Stone. On page 77 of Volume II of the report, Mueller expressed disbelief in Trump’s sworn evidence: “Witnesses said that Trump was aware that Roger Stone was pursuing information about hacked documents from WikiLeaks at a time when public reports stated that Russian intelligence officials were behind the hacks, and that Trump privately sought information about future WikiLeaks releases.” On page 17 of Volume II, the report cites the former Trump attorney Michael Cohen as one of those witnesses, along with Gates.
It is not illegal for a U.S. citizen to act or attempt to act as a go-between between a presidential campaign and a foreign intelligence agency, and Stone was not charged with any crime in conjunction with his Trump-WikiLeaks communications. But it’s a different story for the campaign itself. At a minimum, the Trump campaign was vulnerable to charges of violating election laws against receiving things of value from non-U.S. persons. Conceivably, the campaign could have found itself at risk as some kind of accessory to the Russian hacks—hacking being a very serious crime indeed. So it was crucial to the Trump campaign that Stone keep silent and not implicate Trump in any way.
Which is what Stone did. Stone was accused of—and convicted of—lying to Congress about his role in the WikiLeaks matter. Since Stone himself would have been in no legal jeopardy had he told the truth, the strong inference is that he lied to protect somebody else. Just today, this very day, Stone told the journalist Howard Fineman why he lied and whom he was protecting. “He knows I was under enormous pressure to turn on him. It would have eased my situation considerably. But I didn’t.” You read that, and you blink. As the prominent Trump critic George Conway tweeted: “I mean, even Tony Soprano would have used only a pay phone or burner phone to say something like this.” Stone said it on the record to one of the best-known reporters in Washington. In so many words, he seemed to imply: I could have hurt the president if I’d rolled over on him. I kept my mouth shut. He owes me.
And sure enough, Trump did owe him. Trump commuted Stone’s 40-month sentence. Roger Stone will not go to prison. Stone’s former business partner Paul Manafort is likewise keeping silent. And so the American public will likely never know what use the Russians made of the Trump polling information that Manafort shared with them. Manafort has extra reason to keep quiet, for he must feel new confidence that his pardon is coming.
But how much more do we need to know? At every step in this story, the formula I’ve mentioned in previous essays continues to hold: “Many secrets. No mysteries.” Although crucial details remain concealed, the core narrative has been visible from the start. An American private citizen worked with foreign spies to damage one presidential candidate and help the other. That president accepted the help. When caught, the private citizen lied. When the private citizen was punished, the president commuted his sentence.
It’s all there: as bold as the spats on Roger Stone’s shoes, as ugly as the 130,000 Americans dead, and daily rising, because of the malign incompetence of the president assisted into the Oval Office by Stone, Manafort, and the Russian spy services.