The line to see Roger Stone get gagged stretched from the courtroom door all the way down the marbled hall on Thursday — 100 people deep, with yet more holding placards and TV camera tripods and their respective ideological convictions on the sidewalks outside the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse, a few blocks from the Capitol.
Of course, the people didn’t yet know that Stone would be gagged at the end of the hearing — barred from publicly discussing his upcoming trial on charges of lying, witness tampering and obstruction in the criminal investigation of President Trump’s inner circle. Rather, some of those in line thought Trump’s longtime friend might be sent straight to jail, his bail revoked for allegedly attacking the judge on Instagram last week. Or perhaps Stone would make a scene, as when he flashed Nixonian victory signs at previous hearings this year.
And then there were rumors that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation was nearing its end, and so this might be the last public hearing before Trump himself is implicated in the final report. Or exonerated. No one knew.
All that was certain was that the Prettyman Courthouse, with its walls of polished stone and paint the color of manila envelopes, has become the public’s only live window into an investigation that could potentially bring down a sitting president. And so the people came for Stone’s hearing, as they have been coming to other Trump confidant hearings in this building for months — sleuthing for clues, or awaiting grand jury smoke signals, or simply compelled to be proximate to what could be the most potent criminal case since Watergate.
Near the front of the line in a T-shirt and jeans stood Sebastian Jaramillo, who was visiting Washington from Toronto and knew only vaguely of the Mueller investigation. He had seen the crowd outside the courthouse and simply followed it in — and thus became an accidental witness as Stone passed through the lobby metal detectors minutes later, his gleaming suspender straps somehow failing to trip the alarms.
“I’m baffled,” Jaramillo said, looking back at the throng. “It’s so big!”
Behind him in the second-floor hallway, freelance columnist Gabriel Schoenfeld carried a soon-to-be-released book titled “The Case for Trump” under one arm and said he was there “to soak up the atmosphere,” to “see the circus.” Behind him stood Debra Long-Doyle, who had worked in this building for nearly 30 years as an assistant U.S. attorney and didn’t particularly miss the place after retiring but had queued up all the same for the show.
There were people in matching blue suits, in sloganed sweatshirts and sneakers. One man brought a guitar case for reasons unknown. Court security guards impersonated bouncers, snatching forbidden camera phones out of the queue and turning handbags inside out. Snippets of hazy, speculative chatter issued from the queuers, as if they were in line at a movie theater discussing the fate of some character: “I hope Roger gets a taste.” “Roger is looking for the next piece.”
When Stone himself appeared in the hallway with his wife and daughter and small entourage, a hush followed them into the courtroom, and then the spectators themselves passed through the double doors to watch history happen.
Two stories below, a 67-year-old man who gave his name only as David stood in the sidewalk scrum with a handwritten sign: “Billionaires for Trump,” and its equivalent in Russian.
“It felt like an obligation” to come, David said. He had last felt so obligated nearly 50 years earlier, when he stood outside the same courthouse during the Watergate trials.
“G. Gordon Liddy was the Roger Stone of Watergate,” recalled Bob Woodward, whose reporting on President Nixon’s scandal helped The Washington Post win a Pulitzer in 1973. He recalled Watergate burglary conspirator Liddy showing up to trial with a cigar in his mouth, sticking around after his hearings to ham for the cameras, drawing crowds like Stone.
Woodward had preferred to be anywhere but the courthouse — out knocking on doors and building his own investigation. But like every other reporter, he sometimes found he had nothing better to do than lurk in the halls of that stripped classical government vault, hoping some clue might leak out of a docket sheet.
“The courthouse is kind of — it’s a monument to judicial process and all of its delays and secrecy and boring postponements and hideous misdirection,” he said. “The continual unfolding of hints, guilty pleas, statements, indictments, denials. It ekes out a timetable that no one sets, and no one is in charge of that timetable, including Mueller.”
The courthouse is also where Mueller’s grand jury regularly convenes behind closed doors with no public warning, weighing evidence the public may never see, making decisions that could affect the United States for years to come. It’s where, between spectacles like the Roger Stone hearings, quieter and more cryptic proceedings take place.
A week before Stone’s hearing, the windows of U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s same courtroom were blacked out so that Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, could be escorted inside from a jail van for a sealed, secret hearing. There was no spectacle that day; but that did not mean there was no public obsession.
The half-dozen reporters gathered outside the door knew that the lawyers would not tell them anything of what had transpired inside. But duty obligated them to sit in the hall and wait, discussing the cafeteria salad and staring at a wall for two hours — “just in case,” one said — so they could pursue Manafort’s lawyer, Kevin Downing, to the door of the men’s bathroom when it was over and extract from him the comment, “It’s time to go to the bar,” which they dutifully transcribed for their editors because at this point in the investigation even dumb jokes could make history.
“For many good-government people, this is the ultimate constitutional crisis,” said Andrew Kreig, squashed into a third-row pew at Stone’s hearing Thursday, describing the hyperbole on each side.“The alternative view is it’s overthrowing the duly elected president. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic situation.”
Kreig, who edits a website titled Justice Integrity Project and once wrote a book about how “secretive elites guide our government leaders,” figured this was about the 12th hearing he had attended in the Mueller investigation, including former national security director Michael Flynn’s chaotic sentencing hearing in December and Manafort’s first trial in Virginia (during which, he recalled, another loyal spectator managed to knit an entire blanket).
He knew by now most of the courthouse regulars — the journalists and pro-Trump radio hosts and bloggers and the strange people who gather outside with their signs: “Stop Mueller,” “Dirty Traitor,” “LOCK HIM UP.” He could even the name some of the prosecutors who now sat huddled around their table at the front of the courtroom, opposite Stone, who chewed on his glasses and waited for the judge to decide his fate.
If this was, as was rumored, one of the last hearings before Mueller ends his investigation and delivers his final report, it will be a difficult one to dress up for the history books.
A spectator was kicked out of the courtroom for laughing as Stone tripped over his explanations as to why, four days earlier, he had shared on Instagram a photo of Jackson with an apparent crosshair next to her name. “That was not a crosshair, in my opinion,” Stone told the judge. Rather it was a “Celtic cross,” or an “occult symbol.” He couldn’t remember how he selected the image. Perhaps someone had left it on his phone. Stone couldn’t remember the names of all the people he’d given his phone to that day.
“What will get him to stop talking?” Jackson asked Stone’s attorney after the cross-examination. The trial was still months away, and she was worried about seating a jury amid ongoing spectacle. “Publicity cannot possibly subside with the defendant out there fanning the flames,” she concluded, before ordering Stone to say nothing in public about his case until it was over, on penalty of jail.
But flames, they fan themselves at this point.
“Roger! Roger! Roger!” the gawkers and reporters and jeerers and loyalists called as they followed Stone out of the courtroom.
He said nothing as he passed down the hall. He’d just been forbidden from speaking a word, and the people knew this, and still they chased him for answers — for just one more syllable that might somehow elucidate the case of the century and all the mysteries contained therein.
It was hopeless, but what else could they do?