A federal jury began deliberating Thursday in Washington, weighing a week’s worth of evidence introduced against Stone, the last person charged by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in his two-year probe of Russian election interference and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. The jury is set to resume early Friday.
The Stone trial has unmasked a number of previously unknown details from Mueller’s investigation. When Mueller’s final 448-page report was released earlier this year, it contained some redacted sections that appeared to discuss evidence related to Stone. Over the past week’s trial testimony, prosecutors have revealed a series of phone calls at key moments in 2016 between Stone, Trump and other campaign officials — Stephen K. Bannon, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.
Trump and Stone spoke by phone on July 31, 2016, as the candidate rode in an SUV to a New York City airport, according to the testimony of Gates, Trump’s former deputy campaign chairman, who was in the vehicle.
Gates, who testified as part of a cooperation deal involving separate financial crimes, told the jury that while in the SUV, he could hear Trump talking on the phone to Stone.
Days before that call, WikiLeaks had released a batch of hacked emails from the Democratic Party, roiling their nominating convention and Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff, which the Russians also targeted.
When the Stone-Trump phone call ended, Gates testified, Trump said “more information would be coming,” an apparent reference to future WikiLeaks releases.
On the surface, that suggests Stone — and by extension, the president — had advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans. However, several days earlier, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had given an interview to CNN in which he used similar language, saying his group might release “a lot more material” relevant to the U.S. election.
Gates’s testimony casts fresh doubt on written answers Trump gave to Mueller about WikiLeaks.
“I spoke by telephone with Roger Stone from time to time during the campaign,” Trump wrote in response to several questions Mueller’s team posed to the president. “I have no recollection of the specifics of any conversations I had with Mr. Stone between June 1, 2016 and November 8, 2016. I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with him, nor do I recall being aware of Mr. Stone having discussed WikiLeaks with individuals associated with my campaign, although I was aware that WikiLeaks was the subject of media reporting and campaign-related discussion at the time.”
While some Democrats have suggested the Stone trial evidence shows the president lied in those responses, by answering that he did not recall any such conversations beyond general talk of media coverage, the president is fairly well insulated from any accusation of perjury.
Gates also testified that in April 2016, well before it was known that the DNC had been hacked, or that U.S. intelligence officials had attributed that effort to Russian intelligence agencies, Stone discussed Clinton leaks with people in Trump’s campaign.
That’s a potentially critical piece of evidence, although neither Gates nor prosecutors offered further explanation or detail during Stone’s trial.
From May 2016 onward, Gates said, he thought of Stone as the campaign’s intermediary to WikiLeaks.
Bannon, another former senior Trump adviser, testified that he considered Stone “an access point” to WikiLeaks. “He had implied or told me that he had a relationship with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange,” Bannon said.
Prosecutors said those phone calls, emails, and other conversations between Stone, Trump and other campaign officials gave Stone plenty of motive to lie to Congress about his activities in 2016. Stone, prosecutors said, decided to lie to protect the president, because if the truth of the Trump campaign’s sustained interest in WikiLeaks were known, it would damage the president’s credibility amid the ongoing investigation into Russia’s election interference.
Stone’s lawyer, Bruce S. Rogow, told the jurors they should not make assumptions about the phone calls, since prosecutors don’t know what was said in those discussions, or if WikiLeaks even came up.
Rogow noted that on June 12, 2016, Assange publicly announced that he had information, and after that, Stone and many others could make predictions on what was coming.
“Stone didn’t know when anything was going to happen. Stone is reading it like everybody is reading it,” the attorney said. “Now, does the campaign like to think that he did? Sure. And did Stone like to think that the campaign thought he did? Sure.”
While the Stone trial answers some lingering questions from the Mueller investigation, it also shows how that investigation eventually sputtered out — stymied by the unreliable accounts of Stone’s associates on a central question: Did he have actual advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans, or coordinate with the group in some way?
Much of the trial evidence suggests that Stone and those around him were claiming access and inside information about Assange’s plans that they did not have.
In late July and early August 2016, Stone tasked conservative conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi to try to reach Assange and find out what files he had, and when he planned to release them.
On Aug. 2, 2016, Corsi emailed Stone saying he was in Europe and planned to return to the United States in a couple of weeks.
“Word is friend in embassy plans 2 more dumps,” Corsi wrote, with the first coming in mid-August, and the next in October. “Impact planned to be very damaging.”
Corsi’s email made another assertion: “Time to let more than [Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta] be exposed as in bed w enemy if they are not ready to drop [Clinton]. That appears to be the game hackers are now about.”
Over the coming days and weeks, Stone repeatedly claimed to have an intermediary relaying information from WikiLeaks, and on Aug. 21, 2016, he tweeted, “it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.”
In closing arguments Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Marando said Stone “had been spending that time during the campaign trying to fish for information from WikiLeaks, knowing that that information was hacked, possibly by a foreign government.”
Stone, the prosecutor argued, had lied to Congress to hide his interactions with Corsi, “because Corsi sent him that email, and that email was prescient.”
Corsi was never called to testify in the case, likely because both sides viewed him as an unreliable narrator. During Mueller’s investigation, prosecutors at one point pressured Corsi to plead guilty to perjury, but he refused and Mueller eventually dropped the issue completely.
In arguing for Stone’s conviction, prosecutors at times suggested that Corsi was, in fact, some kind of conduit to WikiLeaks, although some of the evidence suggests Corsi was guessing about what WikiLeaks would do, based on publicly available statements.
In a hearing without jurors present, prosecutor Jonathan Kravis said the government “is not required to prove Roger Stone had a back channel or an intermediary to WikiLeaks, but evidence also provides that.”
But prosecutors don’t need to prove that to win a conviction.
Whether Stone succeeded in getting early word of WikiLeaks’ intentions or was simply pretending to have access is largely irrelevant to the charges against him. Prosecutors just need to convince the jury that he talked about those things, and then lied about those conversations when asked by Congress.