Make no mistake: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of Roger Stone, released early Friday morning, is a big deal. It’s just that it would be a bigger deal if the Trump campaign hadn’t so brazenly conducted its dubious dealings for all the public to see in real time.
The indictment, coinciding with Stone’s early-morning arrest in Florida and a raid of his New York apartment, lays out how Stone, a longtime friend and associate of Trump’s, allegedly served as a conduit between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks. Stone was an early member of Trump’s 2016 team, and had been involved in Trump’s previous flirtations with runs for office, but left the nascent campaign in August 2015.
Yet Stone remained in contact with Trump campaign officials. After WikiLeaks released hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee in July 2016, “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact STONE about any additional releases and what other damaging information [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign,” the indictment says. It’s not clear who that official was, or who directed him or her.
That began months of communications between Stone and WikiLeaks, using two intermediaries, who appear to be the conspiracy-theorizing conservative writer Jerome Corsi and the radio host Randy Credico. Using information apparently gleaned through the two, Stone accurately forecast subsequent WikiLeaks dumps of emails, both to Trump officials privately and in public tweets and comments.
But in 2017, when Congress began investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, Stone tried to cover up all of that, Mueller charges. Stone told the House Intelligence Committee that he didn’t have any relevant documents, which turned out to be false. He disclosed using Credico as an intermediary to WikiLeaks, but not Corsi. He said he’d never asked an intermediary to communicate anything to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks head, and he said he’d never discussed with the Trump campaign any communications he’d had with WikiLeaks. All of these claims turned out to be false as well, as Mueller documented with written communications.
Stone also tried to persuade Credico to lie in his sworn testimony, making reference to the Godfather: Part II character Frank Pentangeli. (Credico replied, “You should have just been honest with the House Intel committee … you’ve opened yourself up to perjury charges like an idiot.”) As a result of all of this, Mueller charged Stone with obstruction, six counts of making false statements, and witness tampering.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Friday that “this has nothing to do with the president, and certainly nothing to do with the White House.” Yet the indictment makes clear the close connections between the Trump campaign and the behavior involved, and Trump has also praised Stone publicly for saying he would not testify against the president. Testify about what?
Much of what is revealed in Friday’s indictment was already partially made clear in a draft document from Mueller’s team that Corsi leaked to the press in November, which sketched out many of the communications between Stone and Assange, via Corsi and Credico.
Yet much of it was known long before that. Stone took remarkably little effort to conceal his communications with WikiLeaks during the campaign. On August 8, 2016, speaking to a Republican group in Florida, Stone said, “I actually have communicated with Assange. I believe the next tranche of his documents pertain to the Clinton Foundation, but there’s no telling what the October surprise may be.” Four days later, during an interview, he again said he had been in touch with Assange, but added that he was “not at liberty to discuss what I have.” In two interviews on August 16, he again boasted about communications with Assange via a “mutual acquaintance who is a fine gentleman.” On August 21, he correctly predicted the leak of the Clinton-campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, tweeting, “Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.” On August 23, on Credico’s radio show, Stone said, “We have a mutual friend, somebody we both trust, and therefore I am a recipient of pretty good information.” He twice tweeted semi-cryptic teases in the days before an October 7 WikiLeaks dump, too.
During the same period, Trump was denying that he had any knowledge of what WikiLeaks was doing, while at the same time praising WikiLeaks extensively. “You know, they like to say every time WikiLeaks comes out, they say this is a conspiracy between Donald Trump and Russia,” he said in Kinston, North Carolina, in October 2016. “Give me a break.”
But it was widely known that Stone was a friend of Trump’s, and Stone boasted openly about staying in touch with the candidate. Anyone paying close attention to public information could surmise that Stone was feeding information from WikiLeaks to the Trump campaign and possibly to Trump himself.
Implausible deniability paired with incriminating public statements was a common theme for the Trump campaign with regard to Russia. The country is a spectral presence in the latest Mueller indictment. In a July 2018 indictment, Mueller laid out evidence for how Russian-government agents hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Podesta and provided them to WikiLeaks. Friday’s filing shows how WikiLeaks communicated them to the Trump campaign. There’s still no public evidence that bridges the gap directly from the Trump campaign to Russia on the email dumps.
Yet even at the time, it was widely held that Russia was responsible for the hacking. A private contractor hired by the DNC had blamed Russia. By the end of the campaign, Trump was also receiving briefings from U.S. intelligence pinning the attacks on Russia. Despite this, Trump continued to equivocate about blame for the hacks, suggesting they could have been the work of China or “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” Even if Trump officials hadn’t been told directly by WikiLeaks, via Stone, that the emails came from Russia, they should have known. (WikiLeaks continues to deny that Russia was its source.)
Trump was publicly courting Russia in plenty of other ways, too. He repeatedly praised President Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail and discussed the benefits of a stronger Russo-American relationship. He downplayed the importance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, suggesting he wouldn’t object as president. He hired Paul Manafort, who was widely known to be close to the Kremlin.
The most dramatic example of Trump communicating publicly with the Russians came in July 2016. On July 21, the Republican National Convention concluded. On July 22, WikiLeaks began releasing emails. In response to that, the “senior Trump Campaign official” was directed to get in touch with Stone to set up the back channel. On July 27, Trump held a press conference in which he publicly called on Russia to release emails hacked from Hillary Clinton.
“By the way, if they hacked, they probably have her 33,000 emails. I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 emails that she lost and deleted. Because you’d see some beauties there,” Trump said. “I will tell you this: Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
Trump aides insisted he’d been speaking in jest. If so, Moscow doesn’t seem to have gotten the joke. The same day, Russian hackers first attempted to hack Clinton’s emails.
As the public has learned through the Mueller probe and press reports, there were also extensive contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia that were not public. The aides George Papadopoulos and Carter Page were both in contact with Russian officials. In June 2016, Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr. met at Trump Tower with Russian lawyers whom they expected to provide damaging information about the Clinton campaign. (Both sides say no information was actually exchanged.) The Trump Organization, via Michael Cohen, was also in contact with the Russian government about building a tower in Moscow, with plans to give the penthouse to Putin, even as Trump denied having any business in Russia.
Yet so much of the communication between the Trump campaign and Russia occurred in plain sight. Stone boasted about his contacts with both Trump and Assange. Trump puffed Putin up and disputed Russian involvement in hacking. Trump called on Russia to hack Clinton’s emails, and Russians tried to do so the same day.
There turns out to have been a perverse tactical genius to this. The public and the press, conditioned by the Nixon tapes, have searched for a “smoking gun” that would prove that Trump’s behavior was either illegal or worthy of impeachment. Yet because so much of the most shocking behavior happened in public years ago, it can seem like old news. It’s unclear what else Mueller might reveal before his probe concludes, but in the meantime, the smoking guns are sitting out in the open—right where they’ve been since the summer of 2016.