Among the first allegations President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen offered against his former boss on Wednesday was that Trump had advanced knowledge of the late-July 2016 release of data stolen from the Democratic National Committee by WikiLeaks.
“In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr. Trump’s office [in Trump Tower] when his secretary announced that [longtime Trump adviser] Roger Stone was on the phone,” Cohen said, reading from a prepared statement at the outset of his testimony before the House Oversight Committee. “Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
“Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of ‘wouldn’t that be great,’” Cohen added.
As we’ve noted, this would be a significant development in the Russia investigation, suggesting a direct conduit from WikiLeaks — in possession of material believed to have been stolen by Russian hackers — and Trump himself. What’s more, CNN reported in November that Trump’s written responses to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III included a denial that Stone had told him about WikiLeaks. If Cohen’s story is true, a call with Stone could put Trump in considerable jeopardy.
Cohen was pressed on this point by members of the committee.
“Mr. Cohen, is it your testimony that Mr. Trump had advanced knowledge of the Russia WikiLeaks release of the DNC’s emails?” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) asked him.
“I cannot answer that in a yes or no,” Cohen replied. “He had advanced notice that there was going to be a dump of emails, but at no time did I hear the specificity of what those emails were going to be.”
“Roger Stone says he never spoke with Mr. Trump about WikiLeaks,” Wasserman Schultz later asked. “How can we corroborate what you are saying?”
“I don’t know,” Cohen replied, “but I suspect that the special counsel’s office and other government agencies have the information that you’re seeking.”
Later, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) asked him to identify the specific date.
“I believe it was either the 18th or the 19th [of July] and I would guess that it would be on the 19th,” Cohen replied.
Massie’s point, it turns out, was that it was known a month before the alleged call that WikiLeaks had information it would release. Assange mentioned having emails incriminating Hillary Clinton in a television interview on June 12. On June 16, after some files had been released by a hacker identifying himself as “Guccifer 2.0,” WikiLeaks tweeted a story asserting that it would take possession of the rest of the DNC files. (By this point, the hack had already been tied to Russian intelligence agencies.)
Cohen’s narrowing of that timeline, though, gives us a better ability to determine when exactly this call allegedly occurred — and to situate it with the rest of the information we have about that moment in 2016.
July 18 and 19 were the first two days of the 2016 Republican convention in Cleveland. Stone was there, generally kicking up dust in his own inimitable way. Trump was there too, of course, making a dramatic entrance on July 18, the first night of the convention. That night, he headed back to New York before arriving back in Cleveland on the afternoon of July 20. That night he interrupted Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tex.) unenthusiastic convention speech. The following night, July 21, he gave his own acceptance speech.
In other words, Trump was only in his office on the 19th and the morning of the 20th, making the 19th the most likely day for the meeting Cohen says he attended.
The 18th is also an important day for another reason. After requesting all of the DNC files from “Guccifer” in late June, it was on the 18th that WikiLeaks confirmed that it had received the package of data, according to an indictment obtained by Mueller. (Instructions on accessing the data had been sent by the hackers on July 14.)
There’s another interesting overlap in this moment. Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen notes that on either the 18th or 19th of July, British politician Nigel Farage arrived in Cleveland as well. Testimony offered to Congress in 2017 by Glenn Simpson, founder of Fusion GPS, suggested that Farage and Assange had met repeatedly. In March 2017, Farage was spotted visiting Assange at his home in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. If Farage had links to Assange, he might be able to shed light on WikiLeaks’ activity.
Why does this matter? Because Stone and Farage had dinner together in Cleveland while both were there. (They were joined by Infowars’ Alex Jones, naturally.)
The Post reported on this in June of last year.
“Farage was introduced to Trump’s longtime adviser, the infamous political trickster Roger Stone, at an Italian restaurant, according to both men,” we reported. Farage’s goal from the meeting? Apparently “to get a meeting with Trump.”
Luckily for Farage, Stone was former business partners with Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Stone called Manafort, who said he’d “put in a good word.” Trump and Farage only met after the election.
So which night was that dinner? Stone was being followed during the convention by filmmakers who eventually produced the documentary “Get Me Roger Stone.” They remembered the dinner because Farage refused to allow the cameras inside. Rozen spoke with the director, who indicated that the dinner was probably on the second or third night of the convention — July 19 or 20. In other words, Stone and Farage may have dined on the 19th, and then called Trump.
That’s one theory, and it’s a loosely knit one. We learn more by looking at what came next.
On July 22, WikiLeaks started releasing the material it had obtained. That same day, according to the indictment Mueller’s team obtained against Stone last month, a senior official from the Trump campaign reached out to Stone to ask him to find out what else WikiLeaks had. The outreach, the indictment indicates, came at the direction of someone else — but it’s not clear who.
The following Monday, Stone contacted a colleague, Jerome Corsi, asking him to see what else WikiLeaks had. Corsi, in turn, reached out to writer Ted Malloch. (Stone at one point had told The Post that the outreach stemmed from a tip he’d received from a conservative blogger.)
This, too, was a busy week. With pressure mounting on his vocal support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump denied any business connections in the country and then, on July 27, publicly encouraged Russia to release emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server. (Mueller’s indictment indicates that it was only on this day that the hackers first attempted to do so.)
At the same time, two events central to the Mueller probe were unfolding. On July 29, Konstantin Kilimnik emailed his former boss Paul Manafort to suggest that the two meet. Kilimnik, who’s believed to have ties to Russian intelligence, told Manafort that he was asked by a deep-pocketed mutual acquaintance to brief Manafort on some issue. A meeting was set for Aug. 2. At that meeting, which Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates also attended, Manafort likely shared campaign polling data with Kilimnik.
Two days prior, the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s campaign. It was triggered, indirectly, by the WikiLeaks releases, which prompted outreach to the FBI by an Australian diplomat who had been told by a Trump campaign adviser that the Russians had incriminating information on Clinton.
Over the next five days, Stone increasingly implied or sought to build close links to WikiLeaks and Assange. He emailed Corsi for an update on Aug. 1. Corsi replied the following day, telling Stone that WikiLeaks planned two more file dumps: One in August and one in October.
On Aug. 3, Stone claimed in an email to have dined with Assange, though that was likely, as he claimed, a joke. He did speak with Trump on Aug. 3, at least according to comments he made in an appearance on Infowars the next day. It was also on Aug. 4 that Stone claimed in a conference call to have details about Assange’s upcoming releases. On Aug. 5, he wrote a piece for Breitbart denying that Russia was responsible for the DNC hack but instead that the hack was undertaken by Guccifer 2.0. (Guccifer was later determined to be a Russian intelligence officer.)
Over the next two months Stone continued to imply that he had a link to Assange and WikiLeaks. In his email on Aug. 2 Corsi had implied that upcoming releases would focus on the Clinton Foundation or Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. During August, Stone at different points suggested publicly that those were upcoming targets.
For Stone, the perception that he had access to WikiLeaks clearly had some value. That Stone was asked by the campaign to seek out more information about WikiLeaks’ plans on July 22 is an example of that value. That request also implies that Cohen’s story might be correct. That Stone’s call might have convinced a senior campaign official, like Trump, that Stone had access to that information. The possibility of a link to WikiLeaks, which Stone encouraged, allowed Stone to position himself near the center of the campaign, as a holder of secret wisdom.
Maybe Stone did have secret wisdom. Or maybe he put two and two together about WikiLeaks’ July release. Or maybe someone who did know gave him a heads-up. Cohen’s story doesn’t actually answer that vital question.
Especially given what happened next. On Aug. 8, Stone spoke to a Republican group in Florida, telling them that he’d spoken with Assange and (as Corsi had told him) to expect a new dump of data focused on the Clinton Foundation. That assertion got some pick-up in the media.
Following that attention, WikiLeaks publicly denied contact with Stone on Twitter. More importantly, internal WikiLeaks messages obtained by the Intercept show that, behind closed doors, he was also dismissed as having no contact with the organization.
That makes the most likely scenario in the call Cohen claims he witnessed an odd one: Stone may have made the call exactly as described. The key falsehood may have been Stone’s representation of his relationship with WikiLeaks.