Roger Stone’s role in the Russia investigation is big news again. That’s thanks to his protege Sam Nunberg’s odd turn Monday on cable news, in which Nunberg said he wouldn’t cooperate with Robert S. Mueller III’s probe and repeatedly defended Stone. This led to plenty of speculation that Nunberg sensed trouble for his mentor, Stone. And so Stone took to cable news himself Tuesday to give his version.
But Stone’s interview with Chuck Todd might have been more notable for what he didn't say — and how carefully worded his denials seemed to be.
The central issue with Stone concerns an Aug. 21, 2016 tweet in which Stone said “it will soon [be] the Podesta’s time in the barrel” — an apparent reference to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. A month and a half later, WikiLeaks released thousands of Podesta’s emails. The tweet has led to suspicion that the informal Trump adviser knew about the trove of emails and might have even coordinated with WikiLeaks, which the U.S. government considers a front for the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election.
Stone said in an early August 2016 speech — before the tweet — that he had been in contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, though he later said it was through an intermediary. He has also said he was in contact with Guccifer 2.0, the Russia-tied hacker allegedly behind an earlier leak of Democratic National Committee emails. And the Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand reported last week that Stone had exchanged private Twitter messages with WikiLeaks in mid-October 2016. (This was after the Podesta emails were released, but it suggested more extensive contacts than previously known.)
With that as background, I’ve pulled out some of Stone's comments Tuesday and provided a careful parsing.
“I never had any advanced knowledge of the content, the source or the exact timing of the WikiLeaks disclosures.”
What first struck me when watching Stone’s interview was his use of the word “exact.” Just because you didn’t know the exact timing of something doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t know it was coming at some point.
In addition, Stone says he didn’t know about the “content” or the “source” of the leaked documents. Again, these are things you might be aware of if you had coordinated, but not necessarily so. It would be much simpler for Stone to say, “I had no advanced knowledge of the hacked emails,” but he’s oddly specific here.
Stone has parsed this question a similar way before. In a Politico interview in March 2017, he said, “So let’s be clear: I had no advance notice of WikiLeaks’ hacking of Podesta’s emails.” But having advance notice of the hacking doesn’t mean you didn’t have advance notice of the existence of the hacked emails. Again, why not just say you had no advance knowledge of the hacked emails’ existence, period?
“I can say with confidence that I know nothing about any Russian collusion or any other inappropriate act.”
This seems like a blanket denial, but consider this: Stone doesn’t concede that WikiLeaks is allied with Russia, and he argues that it does important journalistic work. He was even asked by Todd if he thought working with WikiLeaks would be treasonous, and he said it would not be.
“No, actually, I don’t think so because for it to be a treasonous act, Assange would have to be provably a Russian asset and WikiLeaks would have to be a Russian front, and I do not believe that is the case,” Stone said. He called Assange “a courageous journalist” and said his “track record for accuracy and authenticity is superior than the New York Times or The Washington Post.”
So Stone’s thresholds for what constitutes collusion and “inappropriate acts” seem to be pretty high — and don't include anything he’s accused of.
“I never predicted that John Podesta’s emails would be hacked; I predicted that his business activities would come under scrutiny — his ‘time in the barrel.’ That is based on the January 2016 disclosures in the Panama Papers where his Russian business dealings are fully exposed, the uranium deal, the bank deal, the gas deal.”
This is a defense of the “barrel” tweet that Stone had offered before, but Todd hinted at a problem with it: The Panama Papers dealt with another Podesta, his brother, Tony. Tony Podesta’s firm signed up to lobby on behalf of the Russian bank Sberbank just weeks before the Panama Papers implicated the bank in schemes run by Russia’s elite. And though Tony Podesta’s firm, the Podesta Group, was founded with his brother, John Podesta hadn’t worked there since 1993.
Tony Podesta later stepped down after the Podesta Group’s work in Ukraine was alluded to in the indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, but John Podesta has never been a part of that saga or the Podesta Group’s downfall.
TODD: “Did you suggest to the president that he, at that press conference, say Russia if you’re listening, go find Hillary Clinton’s emails?”
STONE: “I can honestly say that — that candidate Trump, Donald Trump, President Trump and I have never discussed the WikiLeaks disclosures before, during, or after [the election].”
This refers to Trump urging Russia at a July 27, 2016, news conference to “find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from Hillary Clinton's server. WikiLeaks had recently begun releasing the hacked DNC emails, and Trump had been harping on Clinton’s missing emails for weeks.
The comment is also reportedly of interest to Mueller’s investigators. But rather than offer a flat denial that he had instructed Trump to deliver the message to Russia, Stone says he never discussed “the WikiLeaks disclosures” with Trump. Those aren’t quite the same thing, though. It would seem possible he had urged Trump to tell Russia to find Clinton’s emails without technically discussing WikiLeaks.
Todd did go on to press Stone on whether he had ever discussed not just WikiLeaks, but Clinton’s emails specifically, and Stone appeared to deny it: “Not — not a single one, no, absolutely not.”
Lawyers and political PR types will often tell you to offer complete statements rather than saying yes or no. That allows you to set the terms of your comments and not offer overly broad denials. It’s possible that’s all Stone was doing here. But the interview left plenty of questions about his choices of words.