It matters not to Stone that Nixon, his mentor and idol, left the presidency in disgrace. Actually that’s the point.
“It’s better to be infamous than not to be famous at all,” Stone said one recent blustery afternoon as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III seemed to be homing in on him.
Stone’s pre-dawn arrest on Friday morning on charges of witness tampering, obstruction of justice and making false statements only adds to the legend of a self-defined political trickster seen by his enemies more as a profane scoundrel and hatchet man.
Ever the showman with a sense of the moment, a smiling Stone emerged from a Fort Lauderdale courthouse Friday in a blue polo shirt and flung his arms wide, flashing dual victory signs in a scene reminiscent of Nixon’s final gesture after resigning as president. Some in the crowd that was gathered outside chanted “Lock him up” as Stone proclaimed his innocence and vowed that he would not testify against President Trump.
“This whole thing has been a circus, and Roger Stone is the circus master,” his friend Michael Caputo said in an interview Friday. “He’s been punking the Democrats and spooking the media for 40 years. Now he gets a true test of his talents.”
Stone earned the dirty trickster moniker as a lowly, 20-something Nixon staffer in the 1972 campaign. Later, he served on the infamous Committee to Re-elect the President, better known as CREEP, that became so entangled in the Watergate scandal that brought down Nixon. The arrest on Friday made Stone a bridge between two of modern U.S. history’s biggest political scandals — Watergate and the Russia probe.
The aura Stone, now 66, has cultivated has been amplified by his natty suits, his flashy glasses, his startlingly dyed white hair, his enthusiastic embrace of face-bronzing creams, his weightlifter’s physique, and, of course, by the tattoo of Nixon’s smiling face on his upper back. But at its core the lore of Roger Stone has always been about secrets. He knows untold truths, he’s quick to say — clandestine facts.
“P.S. I have no boring clients,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post in 2017.
No client has animated Stone more than Trump, a figure with a demeanor and penchant for the outrageous that matched his own. They hit it off when Trump made a donation to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential effort and Stone was running Northeast campaign operations.
But some in Reagan’s campaign were wary of Stone.
“It became clear that he had difficulty with the truth,” said Edward J. Rollins, a Stone critic who managed Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign and worked with Stone in several elections. “You could only trust 10 percent of what he said, and he always needed adult supervision.”
Stone cultivated a bad-boy image, but he was also a darling of mainstream Republicans. When he left Reagan’s campaign he formed a revolutionary firm with his friends Charlie Black and Paul Manafort that redefined the way business was done in Washington by combining a bipartisan lobbying operation with political campaign consulting. He may have been known as a sly operative, but his new firm — Black, Manafort, Stone — was the hottest political shop in town and it counted numerous blue-chip corporations among its clients.
Trump was one of the firm’s first clients. When Trump wanted to quash Indian casino competition, he turned to Stone, as he did when he needed special permission to dredge a harbor that could accommodate an enormous yacht he’d bought from the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. Stone’s roster of political clients included top Republicans, such as Jack Kemp, the football star and former presidential candidate, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
“What kept him going, despite his problems, were his relationships,” Rollins said. “He has been close to Trump for many, many years, which he liked to remind people about.”
Stone left his Washington firm in the mid-1990s after it was sold. He had to drop out of Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign when a tabloid published an article asserting that he and his wife, Nydia, had placed an ad looking for sex partners in a swinger’s magazine. Years later, he admitted it was true.
Now he likes to say he is “tri-sexual,” always pausing a beat before adding the punchline: “because I’ve tried everything.”
His appetites in all things are large. It has long been de rigueur for him to consume an entire large pizza at lunch, and after his release Friday he repaired to one of his attorney’s homes to have a pizza lunch. At a Washington restaurant recently, he devoured the dinner entree of chicken paillard, then called the waiter over to the table — to order the braised beef short rib entree. Not a crumb was left on either plate.
Far from fading away after leaving Washington, Stone has created an industry around his persona. He published conspiracy books, including one that alleges Lyndon B. Johnson was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He mounted a media campaign around the unproven allegation that former president Bill Clinton fathered a child named Danney Williams out of wedlock.
Long before Trump announced his run for the presidency, Stone had been trying to persuade him to make a run for the nation’s highest office. But his time as a formal adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign was short, and his departure was quintessentially opaque. Trump said Stone was fired. Stone said he quit. In interviews, Stone said he felt he could do more for Trump working outside the campaign — in the shadows.
As the 2016 campaign progressed, Stone hired bloggers to plant anti-Hillary Clinton rhetoric in the comments sections of articles. But his predictions during the campaign about WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization, publishing material damaging to Clinton’s campaign would later put him in the crosshairs of the Mueller probe of Russian interference.
“He was looking to do things to ingratiate himself with the campaign,” Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign official who testified before the Russia probe grand jury, said in an interview Friday. “He never colluded with the Russians or had any documents or did any hacking. He just couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and here we are.”
As it became clearer that Stone was under investigation in the Russia probe, he became bolder. He signed massive bottles of Russian vodka as giveaways at his speeches. When his 9-year-old Yorkshire terrier, Mimi, barked at a visiting reporter, he quipped: “She usually only chases Russians.”
On vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Del., last summer, he lugged a camera along with him to the house he’d rented to live-stream interviews. To raise money for his legal defense fund, he sold T-shirts that say, “Roger Stone did nothing wrong” and autographed “Stone’s stones” that he touted as exact copies of the rock that David used to slay Goliath.
The week before he was taken into custody, Stone appeared on Infowars, the conspiracy-minded website where he hosts a program, and told his audience through gritted teeth that he would eventually be arrested as part of a larger plot to oust Trump and Vice President Pence and install Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as president and Hillary Clinton as vice president. Pelosi would then resign and Clinton would ascend to the presidency, he declared with dead certainty. There was a time when a pronouncement from Roger Stone might have resonated deeply in establishment Republican circles. But his words went mostly unnoticed.
“He had these connections with conservatives that provided many candidates with credibility,” said Alvin S. Felzenberg, who studies the Republican Party and worked with Stone on a New Jersey gubernatorial campaign in 1981. “There is all of that, and then there is the legend of Roger Stone. I think he enjoyed being seen in that way — as the legend.”