The indictment of longtime Donald Trump associate Roger Stone offered the clearest evidence to date of the Trump campaign’s alleged attempts to cooperate with WikiLeaks during the 2016 election.
Special counsel Robert Mueller embedded the tantalizing morsel near the start of the 24-page indictment. He recounts how the Trump campaign swung into action after WikiLeaks — the activist organization suspected of cozying up to Kremlin-backed hackers — started releasing stolen Democratic emails in late July 2016, just days before Hillary Clinton accept her party’s nomination.
In one paragraph, Mueller alleges that an unnamed individual gave instructions to a senior unnamed Trump campaign official to get in touch with Stone “about any additional releases and what other damaging information” WikiLeaks was holding about Clinton’s campaign.
After getting those orders, Stone allegedly told the Trump campaign “about potential future releases of damaging material” that WikiLeaks was holding.
Democratic lawmakers and legal experts tracking the Russia probe singled out those details — which suggest the Trump campaign willingly engaged with a foreign entity seeking to meddle in the presidential election — as the most alluring revelation yet in the Mueller investigation.
The revelation, if true, also suggests that Mueller is potentially sitting on more evidence that could firm up a case of collusion against at least some individuals in Trump’s orbit, or even the president himself.
“This indictment is significant because it alleges coordination between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks,” said Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor who called the language in the paragraph “particularly alarming” because it used the passive voice when describing the campaign officials.
“This language is very different from other language we have seen Mueller use,” she told POLITICO. “He usually is careful to use some identifying language so that the person can be referenced easily. One reasonable inference is that the person who directed the senior campaign official is someone who cannot be indicted: the president himself.”
The White House so far has distanced itself from Stone, who was formally charged by a Washington, D.C., grand jury on Thursday with lying to Congress and obstructing lawmakers’ investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
And senior Trump officials have claimed the specific charges in the indictment don’t implicate the president. “What I can tell you is that the specific charges that have been brought against Mr. Stone don’t have anything to do with the president,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders told CNN Friday morning.
But she repeatedly declined to answer whether Trump directed a senior Trump campaign official to contact Stone about his WikiLeaks connections, saying she hadn’t read the indictment.
The WikiLeaks-Trump campaign association adds a juicy subplot to the ever-expanding Mueller probe, and legal experts say that coupled with Stone’s upcoming court case — he told reporters outside the South Florida federal courthouse he would plead not guilty — could mean the special counsel still has many months to go before wrapping up his investigation, even as it approaches its second anniversary.
“It’s going to be messy, and that takes time,” said Mary McCord, a former senior Justice Department official who helped oversee the FBI’s Russia probe before Mueller’s appointment in May 2017.
Stone’s indictment is also hardly good news for Trump, with the drip-drip of yet more revelations tied to the 2016 presidential campaign clearly on track to spill into the president’s 2020 reelection race and as Democrats prepare for their first primary debates this summer while the party’s House leaders contemplate whether to begin impeachment proceedings.
Speaking to reporters in the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Stone indictment reflects poorly on Trump and should be seen in the broader context of a series of pro-Kremlin administration foreign policy maneuvers.
“It’s very interesting to see the kinds of people the president of the United States has surrounded himself with. This connection to the integrity of our elections is obviously something we have to get the truth about,” the California Democrat said. “But it’s also interesting to see his connections to Russia and the president’s suggestions the we should question whether we should be in NATO, which is a dream come true for Vladimir Putin.”
The new details in Stone’s indictment also prompted Democrats, including some involved in investigating Russia’s 2016 meddling, to inch ever closer to proclaiming that the Trump campaign was coordinating with Russian affiliates whom U.S. intelligence officials have accused of stealing the Democratic emails.
“It is clear from this indictment that those contacts happened at least with the full knowledge of, and appear to have been encouraged by, the highest levels of the Trump campaign,” said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the new chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the revelation that a senior Trump campaign official directed Stone to get in touch with WikiLeaks was the “most significant” allegation in the indictment.
“Our committee will be eager to learn just who directed a senior campaign official to contact Stone about additional damaging information held by Wikileaks, one of the publishing arms of Russian government hackers,” Schiff said.
He also called attention to the timing of the outreach by the Trump campaign to WikiLeaks; it came just days before Trump invited Russia to “find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from Clinton’s private server. “That would mean that at the very time that then-candidate Trump was publicly encouraging Russia’s help in acquiring Clinton-related emails, his campaign was privately receiving information about the planned release of stolen Clinton emails,” Schiff said.
In many ways, the Stone indictment is relatively straightforward: It avoids many of the thorny legal issues that would be raised by a case directly charging Trump aides or supporters with conspiring with Russians or WikiLeaks.
Despite all the outrage and debate about collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, prosecuting a case charging Americans for such activities could be tricky and raises a series of uncertain legal questions.
Among them: Is encouraging the release of negative information about one’s opponent the equivalent of soliciting a campaign donation? Is anything that foreign nationals do to help or hurt a U.S. campaign automatically unlawful?
The Stone indictment dodges those issues in favor of a garden-variety obstruction, false statement and witness-tampering case. It opens Mueller to criticism from Trump allies that he’s not focused on collusion but is instead pursuing what some derisively call “process crimes” that may be easier to prove.
Mueller’s playbook looks similar to that used by then-special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald 15 years ago in his investigation of the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. No one was ever charged for the actual leak, but then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, was indicted for making false statements and obstruction.
Critics complained that Fitzgerald was skirting the core issue, but he seemed more than willing to defend a vigorous prosecution of those trying to thwart investigators. “What we have when someone charges obstruction of justice, the umpire gets sand thrown in his eyes. He’s trying to figure what happened and somebody blocked their view,” Fitzgerald said then.
A former prosecutor on the Libby case, Peter Zeidenberg, dismissed the attempt by Trump’s attorneys and allies to minimize the charges against Stone as “process crimes.”
“It’s just spin,” he said. “The crimes alleged here — false statements, obstruction of justice and witness tampering — cannot be looked at in a vacuum. People do things for a reason. There is a reason why Roger Stone lied about this — he did not want prosecutors to know the truth because, obviously, the truth would have been damaging to him as well as others. You cannot divorce these offenses from the underlying offense of Russian interference.”
McCord, a former head of DOJ’s National Security Division who now teaches at Georgetown University Law Center, said the Stone indictment does draw the investigation closer into Trump’s orbit by referring to the two people from the campaign orchestrating the plan to get Stone in touch with WikiLeaks. But she also cautioned that it doesn’t mean the Trump aides broke the law.
“There’s no conspiracy charge in here,” she said. “Does it mean there’s no evidence of one? Not necessarily.”
McCord said it could be that Mueller is holding onto that evidence but didn’t want to release it in the Stone indictment. The special counsel also has been “trying to do things strategically” and could be looking for more evidence.
“Once you obtain an indictment like this, sometimes other potential witnesses come out of the woodwork,” she said, adding that the Stone arrest and the searching of his home starting early Friday morning might help the special counsel obtain materials useful as the Russia probe continues.
Stone complained Friday after his court hearing that he wasn’t notified ahead of time about his indictment, which led to an early morning arrest and FBI agents executing searches of his residences in South Florida and Manhattan. “I would have been more than willing to have surrendered voluntarily,” he said.
But in a court filing Thursday, Mueller argued that he wanted to keep the Stone indictment under wraps until the arrest because of a concern that publicizing the charges “will increase the risk of the defendant fleeing and destroying (or tampering with) evidence.”
“That shows the level of distrust the special counsel has for Stone,” said McCord, noting that Stone is also charged with obstructing justice and witness tampering.
Mueller fretted that if he given Stone a heads-up he could have destroyed evidence in the case. “That shows the level of distrust the special counsel has for Stone,” she said, noting Stone was also charged with obstructing justice and witness tampering.
By allegedly lying to the House panel and seeking to limit the information it received, Stone also made Mueller’s job easier. Instead of the heavy lift of a foreign-collusion prosecution that would arguably be unprecedented, Mueller’s team now faces the more mundane task of proving that what Stone told the panel wasn’t true, that it was material to the investigation and that the longtime Trump adviser intentionally misled.
The treatment of other top Trump officials wrapped up in the probe underscores the point. While the indictment includes an exchange Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon had with Stone about WikiLeaks releases in October 2016, there’s no indication that Bannon faces any legal jeopardy as a result.
A source familiar with the situation said Bannon was advised by Mueller’s team that he’s only a fact witness in the investigation and not a subject or target — designations that can signal someone faces legal jeopardy.
Of course, the charge of obstructing a congressional investigation could be more politically momentous than being charged with interfering in an FBI investigation. (Stone’s indictment appears to allege he did both.)
And the key test for Trump in the near term is likely to be a political one, not a legal one. Do lawmakers view the role Stone and others played in courting WikiLeaks and trying to encourage damaging releases of stolen emails as bolstering an impeachment case? Mueller seemed not to want to step directly into that debate with the Stone indictment.
Trump’s reaction to the Stone indictment will be closely watched, particularly because the president has the power to end Stone’s prosecution at any time. The complexity of the financial charges Mueller brought against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort meant that state prosecutors could step in if Trump acted to pardon Manafort on the federal charges he’s pleaded guilty to.
But Stone’s alleged lies to Congress and his alleged obstruction efforts aren’t crimes that state or local prosecutors could readily go after, so a Trump pardon might get Stone entirely off the hook, but it would obviously come with a political price.
Stone during his news conference Friday ducked a question about whether he’s seeking a pardon from the president, whom he’s known for about four decades. “The only person I have advocated a pardon for is Marcus Garvey,” Stone said, referring to the early 20th-century black nationalist movement leader.
On Twitter, the president reacted Friday morning to the Stone indictment by lashing out at the Mueller probe. “Greatest Witch Hunt in the History of our Country!” he wrote. “NO COLLUSION! Border Coyotes, Drug Dealers and Human Traffickers are treated better. Who alerted CNN to be there?”
Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s personal attorneys, slammed the Stone indictment for being “nothing more than another false statement charge.”
“It doesn’t allege collusion,” he said. “Indeed, it charges no underlying wrongdoing by Mr. Stone or anyone else.”
For her part, Sanders in her CNN interview accused the special counsel of reaching beyond his original purview of investigating alleged conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“Just because they had some association with the president at some point doesn’t mean that things that they did in their private lives and their personal lives that may or may not have been right or wrong, that doesn’t have anything to do with the president,” she said, before stating incorrectly that “the question, and the big thing, is that the Mueller investigation is supposed to center on is whether or not the president in some outrageous way colluded with Russia and the answer to that is no.”
Indeed, the DOJ mandate for Mueller gave him authority to probe “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” as well as any crimes committed in the course of his investigation.
Philip Lacovara, an attorney who served as a top counsel to the Watergate special prosecutors, said the Stone indictment makes Trump’s “no collusion” mantra “increasingly impossible to maintain.”
He said Trump and his defense lawyers will likely “fall back even deeper into the latest, implausible Giuliani defense bunker” that Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia while Trump remained ignorant of the fact “even though he loudly encouraged further hacks and accurately predicted further WikiLeaks disclosures.”
But he added, “The walls of that bunker are collapsing.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine