Roger Stone has seen this day coming for a long time, and he prepared for it. Not only did he predict he would be indicted in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, but he also pre-rebutted the idea that his talks with WikiLeaks (which have now been detailed) would constitute illegal coordination with Russia.
Asked by Chuck Todd last year whether working with WikiLeaks would be treasonous, Stone made the case that it would not. He argued that the link between WikiLeaks and Russia was too tenuous.
"I don’t think so, because for it to be a treasonous act, [WikiLeaks founder Julian] Assange would have to be probably 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, “I can say with confidence that I know nothing about any Russian collusion or any other inappropriate act.”
This question took on new significance Friday, after Mueller indicted Stone for lying to investigators. The indictment does not charge Stone with anything amounting to collusion (or treason). But as The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman reports, it does somewhat conspicuously lay out a series of occasions on which the Trump campaign sought information about WikiLeaks’s releases from Stone and encouraged the relationship.
At one point, it even makes reference to someone who could be President Trump himself, saying, “After the July 22, 2016 release of stolen DNC emails by [WikiLeaks], a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact STONE” about WikiLeaks and its future releases. It is not clear who did that directing, but the fact that it is left unsaid, and that Trump would be in such a position to direct a senior aide, is intriguing to say the least.
All of these contacts could merely be included to substantiate the alleged lies Stone told investigators about his contacts with WikiLeaks. But it also seems possible Mueller is entering them into the public record for a reason — as a possible preview of things to come.
Could they be part of a collusion case, though? Would working with WikiLeaks, whether you are Stone or someone from the campaign asking for information he had gleaned from WikiLeaks, be legally problematic?
The short answer is it is way too early to say. But the plot has definitely thickened.
The first important note here is that, while Stone does not regard WikiLeaks as a front for the Russians, the U.S. government says it played a key role in Russian election interference. From the intelligence community’s report on 2016 election interference by the Russians:
We assess with high confidence that the GRU [the Russian military intelligence organization] used the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets.
Just because WikiLeaks disseminated the Russian emails does not necessarily mean WikiLeaks was wittingly working for the Russians. According to Mueller’s indictments of Russians involved in the election interference last year, the Russian hackers communicated using that Guccifer 2.0 persona, which claimed to be Romanian, in their contacts with WikiLeaks:
In order to expand their interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Conspirators transferred many of the documents they stole from the DNC and the chairman of the Clinton Campaign to [WikiLeaks]. The Conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, discussed the release of the stolen documents and the timing of those releases with [WikiLeaks] to heighten their impact on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
As the Atlantic’s David A. Graham notes in his piece on whether WikiLeaks was a Russian front, Assange’s sympathy for Russia and its usefulness to him have been pretty evident. We found out recently the U.S. government has indicted him under seal, though we do not know if it has anything to do with Mueller’s investigation.
From there, this is a question of connecting the dots. Let’s say WikiLeaks knew it was doing Russia’s dirty work. Would Stone be responsible for knowing that? The Post reported in mid-June 2016 that Russia was behind the hack of Democratic National Committee emails, but this was not a matter of official government record.
Similarly, the Trump campaign had to be aware of this report when it was seeking information on WikiLeaks from Stone after the initial June 22, 2016, email dump. The report was only a week old. But would that constitute some kind of illegal coordination with a foreign government?
One key question in all of that would seem to be whether there was any kind of a give-and-take — whether Stone was not only getting information but also strategizing with WikiLeaks, either on his own or at the direction of the Trump campaign. And Stone’s indictment suggests he was engaging. It lists three occasions on which Stone asked his intermediary to pass along a message to WikiLeaks, including one in which he requested specific emails:
As described above, on or about July 25, 2016, STONE sent Person 1 an email that read, “Get to [Assange] [a]t Ecuadorian Embassy in London and get the pending [WikiLeaks] emails . . . they deal with Foundation, allegedly.”
b. On or about September 18, 2016, STONE sent a text message to Person 2 that said, “I am e-mailing u a request to pass on to [Assange],” and then emailed Person 2 an article with allegations against then-candidate Clinton related to her service as Secretary of State. STONE added, “Please ask [Assange] for any State or HRC e-mail from August 10 to August 30—particularly on August 20, 2011 that mention [the subject of the article] or confirm this narrative.”
c. On or about September 19, 2016, STONE texted Person 2 again, writing “Pass my message . . . to [Assange].” Person 2 responded, “I did,” and the next day Person 2, on an email blind-copied to STONE, forwarded the request to an attorney who had the ability to contact the head of [WikiLeaks].
So both Stone and the Trump campaign had an indication WikiLeaks might be working for Russia, Stone was allegedly exchanging requests and information with WikiLeaks, and the Trump campaign was encouraging this relationship, at least to some extent.
Even with all of that, though, there is the very important question about journalistic protections and whether WikiLeaks qualifies for them. Again, we do not know on what charge Assange has been indicted, and some would argue that even getting information from nefarious sources would be protected. WikiLeaks did not steal the information itself, and it regards itself as a journalistic organization.
There are so many complex legal questions here, and we do not even know what specific statute we might be talking about when it comes to collusion, which is a word that does not even appear in the criminal code. As usual, the dots are there for the connecting, and they are getting closer to being connected. But there are so many variables here, any one of which could take collusion off the table.