The indictment of Roger Stone, the infamous Republican political operator with a decades-long relationship to Trump, brings the Russia investigation closer to the president and undermines his argument that there was “no collusion,” former prosecutors told VICE News.
Stone was arrested by the FBI Friday in a pre-dawn raid at his home in Florida and charged with seven counts stemming from alleged lies to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction. The indictment painted a detailed picture of his alleged role as intermediary between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks, which published hacked Democratic emails at the height of the 2016 campaign. Those emails, investigators say, were originally stolen by Russian spies.
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee zeroed in on language in the indictment surrounding an unnamed person who directed “a senior Trump Campaign official to contact Stone about” future releases and damaging information WikiLeaks might have about Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“We have reason to ask whether it was candidate Trump,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a key Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told VICE News.
“We know candidate Trump was willing to be a shadowy operator,” Swalwell said. “It would not be out of character at all if he was the person who directed the senior campaign official.”
The White House didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
Swalwell noted that Trump has already been implicated by federal officials elsewhere in ordering his former fixer and attorney, Michael Cohen, to perform other secretive acts to benefit his campaign.
Prosecutors working for the Southern District of New York have said Cohen made payments to women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump “in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1” — Trump. And last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cohen rigged online polls for Trump, after which Cohen tweeted that Trump had directed him to do so.
Swalwell's colleague, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff, meditated on the same detail.
Four former federal prosecutors said the document appears to point toward Trump, but cautioned that the language could indicate another senior campaign official and that it remains too soon to say for certain.
“The most important thing in this indictment is the sentence where it suggests that a senior official was directed to reach out to Stone,” said Rebecca Roiphe, a former prosecutor and now a professor at New York Law School. “There just aren’t that many people left, so it looks like President Trump. I think that’s the most stunning thing here.”
But close-readers should avoid jumping to conclusions about the person’s identity, said Patrick Cotter, a former prosecutor who once worked with Mueller’s top deputy, Andrew Weissmann, in the organized crime section of the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York.
“I would be cautious,” Cotter said. “It could have been Trump, but it’s too quick to say that the only person it could have been was Trump. The campaign was playing musical chairs at that time.”
The president’s potential involvement in Stone’s outreach to WikiLeaks isn’t the only thing that should concern Trump’s inner circle, however. Evidence of concrete actions aimed at collaborating with WikiLeaks could eventually serve as the groundwork for new conspiracy charges involving senior members of the Trump campaign and foreign actors. Some two-dozen Russian operatives have already been accused of running conspiracies to hack Democratic emails and undermine the election via social media.
“This brings the investigation into the Trump campaign,” said Harry Sandick, a former prosecutor with the Southern District of New York. “This makes it clear that there was some effort at coordination, through Roger Stone, with WikiLeaks, which was linked to Russian intelligence.”
Rep. André Carson (D. IN), another member of the House intel committee said the “indictment merely confirms what we have known for some time — that Roger Stone served as an intermediary to WikiLeaks, which was the distribution point for DNC emails hacked by the Russians.”
Carson said the document raises fresh questions that he intends to probe with his colleagues on the House intelligence committee once chairman Schiff restarts the panel’s investigations.
Stone’s alleged attempts to cover up such efforts are also under the scrutiny of Mueller’s team.
The document accuses Stone of falsely testifying before the House of Representatives that he had no written communications with one unnamed “person 2,” when in fact he exchanged over 30 text messages with the person that very day. Stone likewise testified that he’d never spoken anyone on the Trump campaign about what he learned from the person he’d claimed was his intermediary with WikiLeaks. But the document says he spoke to “multiple individuals” on the Trump campaign about those talks.
The evasion recounted in the indictment indicates what prosecutors call “consciousness of guilt,” said Rep. Swalwell, himself a former prosecutor.
“Innocent people don’t go to the lengths that Roger Stone went to to lie to investigators, intimidate witnesses, and otherwise obstruct justice,” Swalwell said
But emerging from the Florida courthouse on Friday morning, Stone declared the charges against him “political,” called himself innocent, and vowed he’d fight the charges.
“I look forward to being fully and completely vindicated,” Stone said after striking Richard Nixon’s notorious victory pose.
He repeated that he’d never testify against the president, a promise for which Trump has hailed his longtime friend as having “guts.” Moments before his dramatic appearance outside the courthouse, he’d called in to his friend and noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ TV show to talk about his pre-dawn arrest.
"It was meant to intimidate me,” Stone said. “But I am not intimidated."
Cover: Former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone walks out of the federal courthouse following a hearing, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Stone was arrested Friday in the special counsel's Russia investigation and was charged with lying to Congress and obstructing the probe. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)