Legal

Trump’s chats with Roger Stone loom over trial’s opening

The prosecution didn't accuse the president of a crime, but did allege he was in direct contact with Stone as the GOP operative sought information about hacked emails.

Roger Stone

President Donald Trump played a role in Roger Stone’s effort to prod WikiLeaks to release damaging emails for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential race, federal prosecutors argued Wednesday in an extraordinary act of defiance toward the White House.

During opening statements at Stone’s trial for lying to Congress in Washington, D.C., the prosecution — which ultimately answers to Trump — stopped short of accusing the president of a crime, but alleged he was in direct contact with Stone as the political provocateur sought information about the release of hacked emails.

The prosecution also bluntly alleged that Stone’s motive in covering up his activities was to benefit Trump and his campaign as they went on to win the White House. Stone is also facing charges that he tampered with a witness in the congressional probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

It was a remarkable start to what is expected to be a spectacle-heavy trial. Jurors were also told on Wednesday that the trial will feature Trumpworld characters like Steve Bannon, the ex-Trump campaign adviser and later a top White House aide, who was in touch with Stone during the 2016 election. Bannon initially fought a subpoena for his testimony but recently relented and will appear.

Stone’s defense also offered its first glimpse Wednesday afternoon into how it will fight the government’s charges. In essence, Stone's attorneys argued that their client had no corrupt intent when he testified before Congress and that his interactions with the witness central to the tampering charge were really just harmless discussions between two longtime associates who admittedly had a “strange relationship.”

But it was the prosecution that got the first say in front of the jury Wednesday, accusing Stone of an intentional effort to thwart Congress.

“We are here today because one man obstructed a congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Zelinsky, a veteran of special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, at the outset of the government’s opening statement. “The defendant, Roger Stone, repeatedly lied under oath to a Congressional Committee and then tampered with a witness to cover up his tracks.”

Zelinsky wasted no time mentioning Stone’s longtime friendship with Trump and that Stone’s efforts were aimed at benefiting his political Protégé.

“The evidence in this case will show that Roger Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee because the truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump,” said Zelinsky.

The prosecution also quickly made plain that Stone was not freelancing, but was in direct contact with Trump and senior campaign officials.

Zelinsky told jurors that in July 2016, as Stone ramped up his efforts to prod WikiLeaks to release damaging emails about Clinton’s campaign, the longtime political provocateur called Trump directly.

“We don’t know the content, [but] they spoke for about 10 minutes on then-candidate Trump’s personal line,” the prosecutor said, adding that the call came two days after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had publicly announced his plans to roll out the hacked materials.

In the ensuing weeks, Stone peppered senior Trump aides with urgent messages about a plan to give a dramatic boost to the New York real estate mogul’s presidential campaign.

“I do know how to win this but it ain’t pretty,” Stone told Bannon in an Aug 16, 2016, email shown to jurors Tuesday. It was the first time prosecutors had revealed the message, one of hundreds of communications they said will be shared during the course of the upcoming trial. Bannon's name in particular was mentioned repeatedly throughout the day, raising the stakes for his eventual testimony.

Bannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The jury was also told that Stone also wrote to Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort with an urgent message.

“I have an idea….to save Trump’s ass,” Stone wrote.

Jurors later heard testimony from a former FBI agent who said that telephone records show Stone apparently speaking to Trump on three occasions in the summer of 2016, around the time Stone took significant steps in his campaign to uncover WikiLeaks' election-year plans.

The government team's repeated invocation of Trump and the Trump campaign is likely to be seen by the president as a provocation. So could the fact that the argument was delivered by a former Mueller prosecutor.

At least three other former members of the Mueller squad — Kyle Freeny, James Quarles and Aaron Zebley — looked on from various spots in the courtroom gallery as Stone’s trial opened.

While the bulk of Zelinsky’s roughly hour-long opening focused on Stone’s alleged defiance of Congress, towards the end the prosecutor said Stone also crudely urged an associate, liberal talk show host Randy Credico, to refuse to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation.

“Tell him to go fuck himself,” Stone told Credico on Jan. 25, 2018, in a text message shown to jurors.

The multiple references to Trump during the early stages of the Stone trial will no doubt shift attention back to the White House. Trump is already embroiled in an impeachment fight with House Democrats over his attempts to pressure Ukraine’s leaders to open politically advantageous investigations, and the prospect that the president will be dragged into a criminal trial by his own Justice Department involving one of his earliest political advisers raises numerous questions.

Trump hasn’t said anything publicly about the Stone case since late January, when the president sent out several tweets on the day after the FBI arrested Stone in a pre-dawn raid. The Trump posts questioned why federal prosecutors weren’t also investigating their fellow law enforcement officials, as well as Clinton herself, and then added a line noting that Stone “didn’t even work for me anywhere near the Election!”

Stone faces a maximum of 50 years in prison if convicted on all seven counts he’s been charged with, though his actual sentence likely would be much less than that. Nonetheless, Trump could face pressure from his base to give a presidential reprieve to the the 67-year-old Stone should he face any jail time.

Opening arguments Wednesday kicked off moments after jury selection came to a close.

That process had spilled from Tuesday into Wednesday. Some of the potential jurors eyed members of the media warily as the tedious decisions on who to strike unfolded without audible comment from the judge or the lawyers. The potential jurors, observers, Stone, his family and others in the courtroom sat in silence for about 40 minutes as attorneys for both sides exchanged papers exercising their right to unilaterally strike members of the jury pool, who were seated in one half of the courtroom gallery.

By late Wednesday morning, the jury had been set — nine women and three men. Four of the jurors are African-American, while the rest are white. Among the potential jurors struck was a former Obama-era spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget. She was presumably struck by Stone's defense, but there was no outward indication in the courtroom of which side struck which jurors.

In his opening argument, Stone defense attorney Bruce Rogow urged the jury to look beyond the documents and messages that they’ll see during the trial, and focus instead on Stone’s state of mind when he met with congressional investigators.

Stone agreed to testify before the House Intelligence Committee voluntarily, Rogow explained. "I think, the evidence will show, that’s not the usual way people go to a committee hearing, certainly if they're intending to lie,” Rogow said

When the GOP-led committee probe approached Stone, Rogow said it indicated it wanted to ask him about Russia’s 2016 election hacking. In Stone’s mind, Rogow said, that meant the lawmakers’ questions — and his answers — had nothing to do with WikiLeaks or Assange, even though U.S. intelligence officials have said Moscow laundered its pilfered emails through WikiLeaks. Stone has always expressed doubts about that conclusion.

“He goes into this bare naked,” Rogow said. "So his answers reflect that, with a state of mind created by the committee and what it’s criteria were.”

As for Stone’s oddly prophetic public statements during the 2016 campaign about the upcoming release of damaging Democratic documents, Rogow said those came without any real inside knowledge about what was happening.

“He did brag about his ability to try to find out what was going on. But he had no intermediary. He found out about everything in the public domain,” Rogow said.

One outstanding question Rogow didn’t address in his opening argument is whether Stone actually takes the witness stand in his defense. It’d be a risky move that opens him up to cross-examination by government prosecutors, but the defendant did it once before during a February hearing at which he apologized for an Instagram post showing a gun’s crosshairs above a picture of U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who is overseeing Stone’s case.

“Roger is many things, but he’s no fool,” said Morgan Pehme, a co-producer and co-director of the 2017 Netflix documentary, “Get Me Roger Stone.” Pehme said it was “hard to imagine he takes the stand.”

One thing was clear on Wednesday morning: Stone is in the building. The defendant told a reporter in the courthouse security line that he was “feeling better” after falling ill on Tuesday and leaving early while jury selection continued without him. He blamed something he ate for breakfast.

Until Wednesday, Stone's attorneys had limited their defense argument around the idea that Mueller selectively targeted the GOP provocateur because of his politics — a charge Stone trumpeted on social media before being hit with a gag order.

That argument hasn't gained much traction in the courtroom. Jackson ruled in August against Stone’s motion to dismiss the case on grounds he was selectively prosecuted, saying their argument was “made up out of whole cloth.”

His lawyers also didn’t get very far after raising questions about whether the FBI leaked word to CNN of its plans for a pre-dawn arrest at Stone’s South Florida home in January. The network denied the charge and explained that it was staking out Stone’s house based on an educated hunch that an indictment was imminent.

Stone’s lawyers have also been kept busy trying to keep their client quiet after a series of controversial social media posts got him into hot water, including the one that raised alarm he was threatening Jackson. The judge accepted Stone’s in-court apology at the time, but later barred him from social media over other Instagram posts criticizing media coverage of the case.

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.