Investigators trying to determine whether Roger Stone obtained information from WikiLeaks first had to interview – and in some cases legally battle with – a conspiracy theorist, a stand-up comedian, a house painter fighting his subpoena, a White House adviser whose electronic history was apparently deleted and the so-called Manhattan Madam.
Some of that cast of characters will re-emerge this week for Stone’s trial at a federal courthouse in Washington. And new details could be revealed from what former special counsel Robert Mueller found regarding the Trump campaign and Russian influence in the 2016 election.
After investigating a number of possible crimes, prosecutors working under Mueller and the DC US attorney settled on obstruction-of-justice-related charges against Stone. This week they will aim to prove to a judge and jury that Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference in the election, aimed to obstruct those proceedings and also tampered with a witness. Stone has pleaded not guilty to all seven charges he is facing.
It’s unclear yet whether Stone will testify in his own defense, but the last time he took the stand did not go smoothly. And it offers a hint into the dynamic between the reserved sanctity of a federal courtroom – where no electronics are allowed and disruptions are swiftly dismissed – and Stone’s bombastic personality and efforts to stir public support for himself.
Under the big top
In February, Stone volunteered to take the stand. Judge Amy Berman Jackson was reviewing a gag order she had placed on the case, which Stone had tested by posting a photo of her on Instagram with crosshairs behind her head. Several times at the hearing, he attempted to argue his side over the judge’s questioning, or grimaced and gestured broadly and licked his lips while he spoke. Jackson grew impatient with Stone’s imprecise and changing answers at the time.
Ultimately, she tightened the gag order, preventing him from speaking publicly about the investigation, the case or any participants in the investigation of the case.
In July, Jackson placed even stricter restrictions on Stone’s speech, barring him from posting on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and all other forms of social media after finding he purposely tried to gain media attention while under the gag order.
“What am I supposed to do with you? It seems as if, once again, I’m wrestling with behavior that has more to do with middle school than a court of law,” she told the defendant.
People associated with the case have likened the upcoming trial to a “circus” or a “freak show.” But they also acknowledge that Stone – who has spent a lifetime practicing in the dark art of political warfare – is in for the fight of his life.
“Roger faces a really uphill battle, but I have confidence in his legal team, and I am optimistic about his chances,” said Michael Caputo, who worked on the 2016 Trump campaign and is a friend of Stone’s. “He has never faced a battle like this in his life.”
Given the high-profile nature of the case, the court has put in place several rules surrounding the trial, including blocking media interviews of trial participants inside and outside the courthouse.
A filled courtroom and additional rooms for media and spectators are expected at the trial and cameras were already camped outside the courthouse in downtown Washington on Monday, where the parties met with the judge to discuss final trial parameters. Stone, wearing a black suit with white pocket square, declined to comment as he walked inside.
Jackson said Monday that everything was in “excellent shape.” Jury selection in the trial gets underway Tuesday and opening statements could come as as soon as Wednesday morning.
Among those expected to take the stand during the trial are Randy Credico, the stand-up comedian; Steve Bannon, the former White House adviser; Rick Gates, the former Trump campaign deputy chairman; and Andrew Miller, a former marijuana farmer and employee of Stone’s. Mueller’s team interviewed roughly a dozen of Stone’s associates as they aimed to nail down whether Stone had successfully created a backchannel with WikiLeaks to obtain hacked information.
Stone was arrested in January, in an unexpected pre-dawn arrest at his home in Florida, caught exclusively on camera by CNN. About a dozen officers with heavy weapons and tactical vests fanned out across Stone’s lawn.
Prosecutors’ allegations against him told a scintillating story of how the Trump campaign coordinated with Stone to attempt to learn about stolen documents that, once public, could hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016. Stone communicated with the campaign about his and his associates’ attempts to reach WikiLeaks, which was rolling out Democratic documents stolen by the Russians. Prosecutors say he falsely denied to the House he had discussions with the campaign and some others about trying to reach WikiLeaks. Stone has maintained he did nothing wrong – and has even sold T-shirts saying as much.
The trial, more than nine months after his indictment and arrest, could take two weeks or more, partly because of the amount of evidence. By March, prosecutors had turned over nine terabytes of data to Stone’s defense team as part of the case, they said in court.
“We could pile it as high as the Washington Monument twice,” Stone’s attorney Robert Buschel told the judge.
Amid those piles are, apparently, evidence of phone calls made to President Donald Trump’s six work and personal phone lines, and to several other key players whom Mueller investigated, including convicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, according to a recent court filing previewing trial evidence.
Gates, Manafort’s former deputy, has become a star witness at two previous trials related to the Mueller investigation, and at Stone’s he could reveal some of the most tantalizing still-secret information Mueller found about the President.
According to the Mueller report, Gates told the special counsel what Trump himself had said during the 2016 campaign related to WikiLeaks and Russian hacking – two areas Stone also allegedly focused on.
But more details about what Mueller learned are redacted in the Mueller report, labeled as secret because of potential harm to an ongoing investigation. Prosecutors have previously said that some of the redactions in the Mueller report are to comply with the court’s order not to prejudice Stone’s potential jurors.
One of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Credico, has expressed anxiety about his upcoming testimony even as he prepares to take the witness stand.
Stone told congressional investigators that Credico was one of his points of contact with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, a claim Credico has repeatedly denied. Credico is also the witness that Stone allegedly tried to intimidate into not cooperating with the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation.
Credico and his lawyer have expressed concern about the online attacks Credico has faced from Stone’s fans, particularly after prosecutors published Credico’s phone number in a court filing.
A comedian, radio personality and progressive activist, Credico often exclaims that he is incapable of sticking to a script, a trait that is sure inspire heartburn in any prosecutor.
His dog, a white Coton de Tulear named Bianca, is often in tow to provide emotional support. She accompanied Credico to his interviews with Mueller’s team and to his appearance before the grand jury. Bianca will be at courthouse, but it isn’t clear if she will join Credico on the witness stand, according to someone familiar with the plan.
At one point, Stone allegedly threatened to steal Credico’s dog, which prosecutors laid out as evidence that Stone was trying to intimidate a witness.
Credico is also central to one of the more significant tangles between prosecutors and the defense team before the trial. Stone had allegedly told Credico he should do a “Frank Pentangeli,” referencing a character in the film “The Godfather: Part II” who lied to Congress about the mafia family for which he worked.
Prosecutors wanted to show a scene from the film in court. But Jackson said they can merely read a transcript if they see fit.
On Monday, Stone’s attorney tried to restrict the use of the movie even further, arguing that only Credico should speak to what it meant. However, Jackson stuck to her initial ruling.
Bannon, a former Breitbart News executive who worked as the chief executive officer of the Trump campaign, is another potential witness for the government
Stone’s indictment, which referred to Bannon as a “high-ranking Trump Campaign official,” revealed how Stone told Bannon to expect “a load every week going forward” from WikiLeaks just a month before Election Day 2016.
Prosecutors may not have been able to access other potentially relevant messages. The Mueller report noted that messages on Bannon’s devices that predated March 2017 were missing. Bannon told investigators “he did not know why messages did not appear on his device,” according to the report.
Miller, an associate of Stone’s who was privy for a time to some of Stone’s email accounts and his schedule, has also been subpoenaed for testimony and plans to comply if he’s called. Miller, a steampunk house painter from St. Louis, spent months unsuccessfully fighting his subpoena to provide information about Stone before a grand jury.
It’s still unclear whether prosecutors will call yet another Stone associate, Jerome Corsi, a prolific author and conspiracy theorist, to testify. Stone pointed to Corsi as one of his backchannels to Assange, although Corsi has said he never made contact with the WikiLeaks founder.
Last year, prosecutors prepared a draft indictment against Corsi for making false statements to investigators as part of a plea deal. The draft document also alleged that Corsi deleted much of his email correspondence with Stone during the period that Stone was encouraging Corsi to get dirt from WikiLeaks.
Rather than take the plea deal, Corsi opted to share the draft indictment with the media. He later released a salacious and typo-ridden book about his experience with the Mueller team. Mueller concluded his investigation without ever bringing charges against Corsi.
But the plea agreement and other issues Mueller dug up regarding Stone’s cast of potential witnesses could provide opportunities for the defense to undercut their credibility before the jury. Gates, for instance, was a shaky witness at times at Manafort’s trial last year, and has pleaded guilty to his own charges and awaits his sentencing.
Some of Stone’s associates that were not called as witnesses plan to attend his trial anyway. Caputo, who has not been permitted to be in contact with Stone since his arrest, said he plans to be in the courtroom as often as possible.
Kristin Davis, famously known as the “Manhattan Madam,” was not called to testify at Stone’s trial but she still plans to attend the second week of proceedings, her spokeswoman said. She and Stone are longtime friends, and he is her son’s godfather.
“I believe Stone is being persecuted because he refused to provide false testimony against the President. I look forward to the truth coming out,” Davis told CNN last week.