WASHINGTON - In recent weeks, a grand jury in Washington has listened to more than a dozen hours of testimony and FBI technicians have pored over gigabytes of electronic messages as part of the special counsel's quest to solve one burning mystery: Did longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone - or any other associate of the president - have advance knowledge of WikiLeaks' plans to release hacked Democratic emails in 2016?
While outwardly quiet for the last month, Robert S. Mueller III's investigators have been aggressively pursuing leads behind the scenes about whether Stone was in communication with the online group, whose disclosures of emails believed to have been hacked by Russian operatives disrupted the 2016 presidential campaign, according to people familiar with the special counsel probe.
Stone, who boasted during the race that he was in touch with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, has said since that his past comments were exaggerated or misunderstood. Both he and WikiLeaks have adamantly denied they were in contact.
However, prosecutors are closely examining both public comments and alleged private assertions that Stone made in 2016 suggesting he had a way to reach Assange, the people said.
Last month, Randy Credico, a onetime Stone friend, told the grand jury that the Trump loyalist confided during the 2016 campaign that he had a secret back channel to WikiLeaks, according to a person familiar with the matter.
In a series of interviews with The Washington Post, Stone said his only connection to the group was through Credico, a liberal comedian who had hosted Assange on his New York radio program in 2016.
The special counsel's prosecutors have also zeroed in on Stone's relationship with conservative journalist and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, examining whether he served as a conduit between Stone and Assange, according to another person familiar with their interest. Corsi appeared before Mueller's grand jury last month, and FBI agents have recently been seeking to interview Corsi's associates, according to the person.
In addition, investigators have scrutinized Stone's communications with Trump campaign officials about WikiLeaks, according to people familiar with the probe.
One apparent line of inquiry: whether Stone lied to Congress about his alleged contacts with WikiLeaks during the presidential race, according to the people.
The question of whether Trump associates were in contact with WikiLeaks is at the heart of Mueller's inquiry. According to charges filed by the special counsel in July, Russian military intelligence officers used an online persona called Guccifer 2.0 to distribute hacked Democratic emails through WikiLeaks. The Russian operatives also used Guccifer 2.0's Twitter account to send messages to Stone, who has said the exchanges were benign.
The online organization has said it had no contact with Stone. "WikiLeaks & Assange have repeatedly confirmed that they have never communicated with Stone," the organization tweeted in March 2017.
Stone told The Post that Credico "was my principal source regarding the allegedly hacked emails published by WikiLeaks," a claim Credico has denied. Stone added that one of his remarks in 2016 predicting that WikiLeaks was about to release information related to Clinton was informed by a another journalist's tip that he was forwarded by an associate.
Stone called Mueller's investigation illegitimate and said the special counsel, who has interviewed at least seven of his associates, is trying to pressure him to flip on President Trump.
"The special counsel pokes into every aspect of my social, family, personal, business and political life, seeking something - anything - he can use to pressure me, to silence me and to try to induce me to testify against my friend Donald Trump," Stone said in a recent videotaped fundraising appeal. "This I will not do. When I say I won't roll on the president, what I mean is I will not be forced to make up lies to bring him down."
A spokesman for the special counsel declined to comment.
Questions about Stone's possible connection to WikiLeaks were stoked by encouraging comments he made after the group released thousands of hacked emails from key Democratic figures, beginning on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in July 2016.
The following month, Stone began predicting that WikiLeaks would strike again before the election. In a widely reported speech to a Republican group in South Florida in early August 2016, Stone boasted: "I actually have communicated with Assange."
Then, on Aug. 21, he tweeted, "Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta's time in the barrel." Six weeks later, WikiLeaks began posting online emails stolen from the account of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Stone now says his tweet was a reference to opposition research he got from Corsi about the business dealings of Podesta and his brother, Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta.
Two days after his Podesta tweet, Stone appeared on Credico's radio program. Credico asked whether an "October surprise" was coming and stated that Stone had "been in touch and indirectly with Julian Assange," according to a clip obtained by CNN.
"I don't want to intimate in any way that I control or have influence with the Assange because I do not," Stone responded on the show. "We have a mutual friend, somebody we both trust and therefore I am a recipient of pretty good information."
Stone now says he was referring to Credico. "I certainly couldn't out Randy on his own radio show, but the person I refer to is of course him," he told The Post. "He is in on the joke from the beginning."
As Election Day neared in 2016, Stone continued his predictions. On Sunday, Oct. 2, he tweeted, "Wednesday @HillaryClinton is done. #WikiLeaks." When there was no release on Wednesday, Oct. 5, he tweeted, "Libs thinking Assange will stand down are wishful thinking. Payload coming #Lockthemup."
Two days after Stone's "payload" tweet, WikiLeaks published the first tranche of Podesta's emails - and then dropped new batches nearly daily before the November vote.
When Stone came under scrutiny for his comments about WikiLeaks after the election, he said had no advance knowledge of the hacking and was just conveying information he had received from Credico.
In a letter to the House Intelligence Committee in September 2017, Stone also identified Credico as his source on WikiLeaks, according to a person familiar with the communication.
Credico has repeatedly denied passing any information from WikiLeaks to Stone. Rather, he said he may have speculated about the group's tactics when he was with Stone. Credico has told allies that he believes Stone used him as a "decoy" to try to explain his claims of having a back channel to Assange.
Mueller's efforts to unentangle the conflicting accounts of Stone and Credico are complicated by the fact that both men are voluble showmen. They became friends in the early 2000s through a shared interest in liberalizing New York drug laws but have split bitterly amid scrutiny from the special counsel.
Stone said he believes Credico had sources connected to WikiLeaks and said Credico offered to get information from Assange's circle for him.
Two Stone associates, filmmaker David Lugo and attorney Tyler Nixon, also told The Post that Credico acknowledged in conversations last year being the source of material for Stone's statements and tweets about WikiLeaks.
Nixon said he would be willing to testify before the grand jury about a dinner in which Credico fretted that his liberal friends would be displeased that he was a source for the arch-conservative Stone. Lugo provided The Post with text messages in which Credico said: "I knew Rodger [sic] was going to name me sooner or later and so I told you that I'm the so-called back Channel."
An attorney for Credico declined to comment on Lugo and Nixon's claims.
For his part, Credico said he recalls that Stone claimed in a September 2016 conversation that he had a mystery WikiLeaks contact. Credico said that he wasn't sure at the time whether to believe him.
"I remember saying, 'Roger, I thought you had a back channel,'" Credico said. "He said something to the effect of, 'Yes, but I can't use him all the time.'" Credico relayed that account to the grand jury last month, according to a person familiar with his testimony.
Stone at first denied Credico's claim that he suggested having a conduit to reach WikiLeaks, calling his old friend a "perjurer" and saying he'd relish the opportunity to confront Credico in court.
Later, Stone acknowledged to The Post that he "obliquely" told Credico in an email that he had "a second source" of WikiLeaks information besides the New York comedian.
He told The Post that person was not a direct conduit to WikiLeaks. He said he was referring to information another associate passed to him from a journalist who wrote in a July 2016 email that he had heard WikiLeaks would be releasing information related to the Clinton Foundation.
Stone has also said that he was getting information about the Clintons in 2016 from Corsi. He told the House Intelligence Committee that his Podesta tweet was "based on a comprehensive, early August  opposition research briefing" from Corsi.
Corsi gave a similar account in a March 2017 Infowars column in which he named himself as Stone's source for the Podesta tweet and confirmed Stone's timeline, saying they'd had detailed conversations about Podesta from Aug. 14, 2016, through Aug. 31, 2016.
Mueller is now examining their exchanges.
Corsi's attorney, David Gray, said in an interview last month that Corsi had been subpoenaed by the special counsel, who indicated he was interested in Corsi's communications with Stone in 2016 and 2017. Gray declined to comment last week.
Stone said he first encountered Corsi around 2015, when the author was writing about presidential politics for World Net Daily, a conspiracy-theory-oriented website. Later, both contributed to Infowars, where Stone still hosts a program streamed live over the Internet.
In an interview, Stone suggested that the special counsel may actually be interested in Corsi's relationship with Trump.
Corsi was a leading proponent of birtherism, the false conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. In 2011, he wrote the book "Where's the Birth Certificate?: The Case That Barack Obama is Not Eligible to be President."
Around that time, Trump took up the conspiracy theory, questioning Obama's citizenship and demanding that he release his birth certificate.
Stone said that during a conversation with Trump in 2011, "he said to me, 'Who is this guy, Jerome Corsi?'" Stone recalled.
Stone said he asked Trump why he was inquiring about Corsi.
"I've been talking to him," Stone recalled Trump saying.
Stone said that Corsi also met with Trump during the 2016 campaign. Trump attorney Jay Sekulow declined to comment.
Mueller, Stone added, may have been "more interested in those meetings than anything to do with me."
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The Washington Post's Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.
If Republicans are going to prevent a blue wave from washing over the country on Nov. 6, the evening's first sign of a stop could come in Virginia, where people such as Larnie Allgood are eager to send a message in support of their president.
Allgood, a retired telecommunications worker, is voting to reelect his congressman, Dave Brat, because, he said, "he and Donald Trump don't fit in that swamp in D.C. I don't pay much attention to what Trump says, but I watch what he does with the tax cuts and the jobs coming back in."
If Democrats are going to wrest away the House and gain a foothold on power in the Trump era, an early Election Night indicator will come shortly after the polls close at 7 p.m. in Virginia, one of the battleground states with the most close races in the Eastern time zone.
To flip at least a couple of Virginia's four vulnerable Republican seats, Democrats need people such as Mei Wu to break with their past and express their frustration with an antagonizing president.
"We have remained silent for too long - no more," said Wu, an electrical project manager in suburban Richmond who just joined a newly organized group of Asian Americans, most of them immigrants, in support of Brat's Democratic challenger, Abigail Spanberger. "We Chinese-Americans are naturally conservative; my son thinks I should be hardcore Republican. But the president tells so many lies and attacks immigrants so much, he's pushed a lot of us to the Democratic side."
From a distance, next month's midterm election in a deeply divided nation presents a binary choice between red and blue. But control of the House will be determined especially in purple places such as Virginia, where newcomers from other states and countries have boosted the economy and created surprising chances for Democrats.
Nationwide, Democrats need to flip 23 seats to take over the House. In Virginia, where Republicans hold a 7-4 advantage over Democrats in House seats, there are four real races, three in districts that Trump won handily two years ago and that Republicans have considered safe in recent cycles.
The close races are taking place not only in the affluent suburbs of Washington, but also in central Virginia around Richmond, the seaside communities around Virginia Beach and in a massive district that includes some of the Washington, D.C. exurbs, Charlottesville and a rural swath reaching all the way to the North Carolina border.
With suburban women trending nationwide against Trump, the Democrats have chosen women to run in all four of the tight races. Three are running for office for the first time. Two are veteran national security professionals - Spanberger and Elaine Luria, a former Navy commander who is challenging Rep. Scott Taylor in the 2nd, which includes Virginia Beach and the Eastern Shore.
The challengers are running close to or even ahead of the Republicans, according to recent surveys.
And the money is pouring in.
In the three most competitive districts - Brat's, Taylor's and Rep. Barbara Comstock's in the Washington suburbs of the 10th District - political action committees independent of the campaigns have spent $9.2 million through September, more than four times the previous record, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
In Virginia's 7th District, Brat, a mild-mannered economics professor who stunned his own party by ousting then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the 2014 Republican primary, now finds himself in a tight battle against Spanberger, a former undercover CIA agent and suburban mother.
In a district that stretches from Richmond's increasingly blue suburbs through rural farmland and up to the outer reaches of the Washington, D.C., metro area, Spanberger knows she can't oust a Republican incumbent unless she wins both those who tell her that "I need to vote for you because the news is too much," and those who start their conversations with "I'm a Republican, but."
The 7th is one of Virginia's strangely elongated districts, fat fingers drawn by Republican legislators to encompass suburban and rural terrain that was expected to ensure reelection for GOP congressmen.
But that recipe is not working as well as it used to, as voters in the 7th's two large suburban Richmond counties - Henrico and Chesterfield - shift toward the Democrats. Last year, Democrat Ralph Northam won the governor's race by flipping suburban counties in some of the districts up for grabs next month.
"The polling shows this really severe split between rural and suburban voters, especially women, and as a Republican like Brat, you can do everything right in a very tough environment like this and it could still go the other way," said Tucker Martin, a longtime adviser to Virginia Republican candidates. "If you're disaffected by what's going on in Washington, Spanberger is telling people she can be that safe place for you."
"Our vote is there in all of those Virginia districts," said Republican pollster John McLaughlin. "They didn't move away. The problem is, you're seeing a lot of Trump voters stay home this year."
The Democratic women in the four close races speak to each other regularly and are "offering variations on similar messages," Spanberger said, "taking districts that were not even in the realm of possible and turning them into ones we can win."
Those variations are most apparent in how the Democrats talk about their opposition to Trump. Two challengers are the more avowedly liberal of the bunch and present themselves as part of the anti-Trump resistance movement: In the 5th District, a slice of Virginia larger than New Jersey that stretches from the D.C. exurbs to the North Carolina border, Leslie Cockburn, a veteran journalist, is running for an open seat against Republican Denver Riggleman, and in the 10th, which extends from inside the Capital Beltway out to the Shenandoah Valley, state Sen. Jennifer Wexton is challenging Comstock.
Luria and Spanberger, in contrast, shade toward the center, positioning themselves as pragmatists who will sometimes stand tall against the president, even as they reach out to disaffected Republicans and independents by emphasizing that they will work with Trump when that makes sense.
Brat seeks to paint Spanberger as a chameleon who tells different audiences what they want to hear.But he, too, is cautious about how he speaks about the president, endorsing the Trump tax cuts, yet also reminding voters of his tea-party roots by continuing to rail against deficit spending. "If you put James Madison together with Adam Smith, you'd have my position on anything," he said in a brief interview. "Good luck figuring out what my opponent stands for."
Spanberger purposely avoids direct comment on Trump. "I don't mention him," she said. "I'm not running against him. I don't want to re-litigate 2016. What good does it do for me to vilify him if I'm going to need him to sign my bills?"
In suburban districts, Republicans are similarly guarded over how to handle the Trump factor. In ads that make no mention of her party affiliation, Comstock markets herself as "our independent voice." Taylor also avoids the party label; his ads call him "an independent leader who works for us." On his website, Brat, like Comstock, steers clear of Trump references.
Still, in Brat's district and around the state, many Virginians say they feel compelled to use this year's vote to make a statement about Trump.
"All votes today are about him because he's so polarizing," said Bill Wood, a 72-year-old Republican and Marine veteran who runs a construction business in Henrico and attended a Brat town hall on veterans' affairs.
"I can't say I know where Brat stands because all his ads are negative about Spanberger," Wood said. "I wish that wasn't the case because she comes across as someone who you can trust, even though I'm a Republican. I could see voting for her - until that Kavanaugh hearing," the Senate confirmation debate over Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, which Wood viewed as a Democratic assault on Trump's nominee. Wood is leaning toward Brat.
Twenty minutes from Brat's town hall, Oz Parvaiz, a finance executive, has invited friends and neighbors to his house to meet Spanberger in the first campaign event he's ever hosted. A Pakistani immigrant, Parvaiz said he and his wife "felt a deep sense of isolation when Trump won. The day after the election, my son asked me if we had to go back to Pakistan. I told him, 'You were born here. Nobody gets to tell you how American you are.' " He started asking his friend Spanberger to run for Congress.
"You see a lot of people getting off the sidelines, and especially new Americans, and especially in suburban areas like Henrico," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who is doggedly campaigning for Spanberger and the other Democrats - a luxury he can allow himself because he is running well ahead of his Republican challenger, Corey Stewart, who bills himself as "Trump before Trump was Trump."
Suburbs such as Henrico and Chesterfield have become friendly turf to candidates such as Spanberger, who, like the other Virginia Democrats, touts her professional résumé and her role as a mother (in her case, as a Girl Scout leader, too).
But these Virginia districts also contain extensive rural areas, where things get tough quickly for Democrats, especially on issues such as gun control.
Spanberger tries to split the question. "As a parent, I have been emotional on this issue," she said. "So as a person, I fully support a federal ban on assault weapons. As a legislator, it is a hot-button issue. . . . We can achieve incremental change. There are a lot of things we can do while we're arguing about assault weapons that will save many lives in this country."
Strategists for both parties call a Democratic sweep unlikely, but a flip of two or three of the seats is plausible, both because anti-Trump voters are strongly motivated to vote and because the Republican field faces unusual challenges.
All four GOP candidates are steering clear of Stewart, the man atop their party's ticket in Virginia, whose embrace of white nationalists has made him kryptonite for Republicans hoping to win over moderate voters.
"I'm running my race, as you know," Comstock said when asked if she endorsed Stewart.
Riggleman is a late replacement for incumbent Rep. Thomas Garrett, who announced at the end of May that he is an alcoholic and would drop his reelection bid.
Brat holds few public events in his district - especially since a town hall last year where protesters shouted him down and he complained that, "The women are in my grill no matter where I go." He appears often on Fox News and other national conservative outlets.
And Taylor, a 39-year-old former Navy SEAL in his first term, has had a troubled campaign, fighting allegations of corruption. In August, aides to Taylor were accused of forging signatures on petitions of another candidate, Shaun Brown - his Democratic opponent in 2016 - to get her on the ballot and siphon votes from this year's Democratic nominee, Luria.
The move backfired and a special prosecutor is investigating. While Taylor's campaign went dark, figuring out how to deal with the scandal, Luria introduced herself to voters, and Democrats aired TV ads cautioning voters to "Remain vigilant: Congressman Scott Taylor is still at large."
Luria, one of the first women to serve her entire Navy career on combat ships, said she has always considered herself a Democrat. But although she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, she also backed Taylor that year because she thought he would govern as a moderate.
Now, Luria portrays Taylor as a GOP foot soldier who votes with his party 98 percent of the time. (Wexton wields the same statistic against Comstock.) Luria emphasizes her military pedigree and avoids Trump-bashing in a district that includes the world's largest naval base.
Over several recent appearances, Luria never uttered Trump's name. But she made clear her opposition to the president by pointing out that Taylor had backed away from promises to oppose offshore drilling - which Trump supports - and to maintain health-care coverage for preexisting conditions, which would have been left uncovered in a Trump-backed bill. Taylor said he believed the bill would have protected preexisting conditions.
Democratic strategists have encouraged Luria and the other Virginia candidates to talk about Trump's policy failures rather than explicitly attacking the president. "What we're telling our candidates is that that's baked in," said Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-Va., a top official in the party's congressional campaign committee. "Just going out and bashing Trump for the sake of Trump - you've got those voters already."
Republicans in Virginia's purplish suburbs are also wary of direct engagement with Trump. Comstock faces the toughest sledding of any Virginia incumbent: Trump lost her district by 10 points to Clinton, and its diverse, well-educated voters include a heavy concentration of federal workers.
Comstock has been on a savvy quest to separate herself from Trump, from his time as a candidate (she called on him to drop out after release of the Access Hollywood video in which Trump bragged of grabbing women by the genitals) to his threats this year to jolt Congress into action by shutting down the government.
"I think both sides have learned that a government shutdown was bad. It wasn't good for them," Comstock told the president on live TV.
But as much as Comstock touts "a booming economy fueled by our tax cuts," her opponent is busy reminding voters about Comstock's promises in this spring's primary campaign to remain "pro-border-wall," "pro-life" and "pro-2nd Amendment."
"What's happening in Comstock's district is what happened in Henrico County and all the metropolitan areas," said Linwood Cobb, a longtime Virginia Republican activist. "They've shifted to the blue. And right now, with both parties going so far to the extremes, whoever reaches back to the center is going to win. Spanberger's ads are all about character and compromise and competence, and right now, that may be what you need to win."