For a case about a handful of lies, special counsel Robert Mueller sure has stacked up a lot of evidence on Roger Stone.
Mueller’s investigators are combing through years worth of data from hard drives, cellphones, iCloud backups and more following the indictment of Stone, the infamous Republican operative and longtime adviser to Donald Trump.
The vast haul suggests Mueller is gearing up to put Stone under the same kind of scrutiny that helped him flip other defendants — like Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates — into cooperating witnesses in the Russia probe. In each of those cases, early pledges to fight eventually collapsed under the weight of mountains of evidence that prosecutors used to turn past indiscretions into criminal charges.
“The evidence against him strikes me as overwhelming.”
“When you dive-deep into someone’s life and take their phones and their computers, you often find things unrelated to what you started out looking for,” said Joseph Moreno, a former federal prosecutor. “And Roger Stone has had a very colorful life.”
Stone maintains he’s done nothing wrong, and he’s vowed to beat Mueller’s prosecutors in court. Stone’s lawyer, Grant Smith, said his legal team hasn’t yet seen the terabytes of data Mueller’s team said it’s already collected.
“This case is charged as lying to Congress and witness intimidation, we cannot imagine how the evidence of these alleged crimes is that voluminous,” Grant wrote in an email to VICE News.
Yet the narrow charges against Stone may mark just the beginning of his legal ordeal, depending on what Mueller’s team discovers after putting his life story under the microscope.
“There are a lot of breadcrumbs to suggest that the Stone indictment is not the end of this story,” said Rebecca Roiphe, a former federal prosecutor. “Mueller may be planning to start with something small, and build from there.”
Mining the past is a strategy Mueller’s used successfully against other high-profile members of Trump’s inner circle before.
Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, insisted on his innocence after he was charged with past financial crimes in late 2017 stemming from his earlier work for Ukraine’s Russia-friendly former president, Viktor Yanukovych. But new counts kept piling up, including the charge of witness tampering, until Manafort’s future was seriously in doubt.
Eventually Manafort was found guilty of eight counts of bank and tax fraud, and caved soon after, agreeing to cooperate with Mueller to avoid a second trial. That deal later fell apart after Manafort was accused of continuing to lie to investigators.
A similar pattern played out in the case of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former attorney and self-styled “fixer.”
Cohen once boasted he’d take a bullet for Trump. But a FBI search of his properties turned up an immense amount of data that helped uncover an array of criminal behavior, including campaign finance violations stemming from hush-money payments to women who claimed they’d slept with Trump.
Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, likewise appeared steadfast in his unwillingness to cooperate. But four months after he was slapped with conspiracy and other charges alongside Manafort, he pleaded guilty and struck a deal with Mueller.
And some of Stone’s lies appear outright brazen: Mueller’s indictment accuses him of sending some 30 texts to another witness on the same day he testified to the House Intelligence Committee that they had no written communications.
“The strength of the evidence of obstruction is pretty remarkable, not to mention the very blatant way Stone tried to do it,” said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor with the Southern District of New York. “The evidence against him strikes me as overwhelming.”
Mueller may be hoping to flip Stone into a cooperating witness — much like he did with Gates, Cohen and Manafort — in order to gain more information on key moments during the Trump campaign. He’ll be especially interested in learning more about any interactions between the campaign and the renegade pro-transparency group WikiLeaks, which released hacked Democratic emails during the run-up to the 2016 election.
Stone’s indictment makes as much clear, detailing his attempts to reach out to WikiLeaks through intermediaries while communicating with top Trump campaign officials.
But Stone’s cultivated image as a political trickster who indulges in the most fringe of conspiracy theories may deter Mueller’s team off from ever putting him on a witness stand.
“Even if you had a rock-solid paper case, I’d be worried that putting Stone on the stand might actually undermine it.”
Mueller’s team had enough of an issue with Gates during the Manafort’s trial, where the former political operatives past crimes, lies and adultery were used by defense lawyers to undermine his testimony against his former boss. In that instance, Mueller’s team bolstered Gates with stacks of supporting evidence.
But Stone, whose political career dates back to the Watergate scandal under Richard Nixon, has admitted to lying on multiple occasions in the past. He’s called his own past public statements about being in touch with WikiLeaks nothing more than “bluffing and posturing and punking the Democrats.”
Stone has never shied away from controversy. When the New Republic dubbed him “The State-of-the-Art Washington Sleazeball” in a 1985 cover story, Stone mailed out copies to influential friends and boasted that it brought in new business. More recently, he’s appeared regularly on conspiracy-theorist and far-right flamethrower Alex Jones’s Infowars show, where he called in for a live phone interview immediately after his arrest.
And while his questionable past may provide material for prosecutors seeking leverage over him, it’s also likely to undermine his value as a witness before a jury.
“Even if you had a rock-solid paper case, I’d be worried that putting Stone on the stand might actually undermine it,” Roiphe said. “My guess is they’re not planning to use him that way.”
Instead, she said, Mueller is likely hoping Stone may be able to tell investigators how to uncover other kinds of evidence — like written messages or additional witnesses.
Stone’s reputation may be so dubious that Mueller may not see him as any kind of help at all, according to Peter Zeidenberg, a former prosecutor and deputy special counsel for the prosecution of former White House aide Scooter Libby.
“I don’t think he’d even be willing to speak with him,” Zeidenberg said. “There’s a very good likelihood that he might go in for a debriefing, and then go straight to Sean Hannity or Infowars and talk about how unfair they were to him.”
Cover: Former campaign adviser for President Donald Trump, Roger Stone, leaves federal court in Washington, Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)