THE FIRST time Roger Stone talked to Donald Trump about running for president was in 1988. “We’re sitting in the office. He’s looking at the newspaper, which he did more then than now. And he says, Jesus Christ: George Bush and Mike Dukakis? How fuckin’ pathetic is that? How fuckin’ pathetic. He says, You ever shake hands with George Bush? I said No, what’s it like. He said, Let me show you (dead-fish handshake). He said, And this Dukakis, what is he? 5’5″? I said, Maybe you should run. He says, I’ll tell you this: I’m not interested in running. But if I did run, I’d win.”
Mr Stone’s role in Mr Trump’s eventual victory has been a source of speculation ever since November 2016. On January 25th he was arrested at his home in Fort Lauderdale and indicted by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, on seven counts, including obstructing an official proceeding, witness-tampering and making false statements about his communication with WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign. At his arraignment Mr Stone—in Democratic blue suit, tie and uncharacteristically flabby pocket-square—pleaded not guilty to all seven counts. He left the courthouse through throngs of supporters and detractors waving signs that read: “DIRTY TRAITOR”, LOCK HIM UP” and “ROGER STONE DID NOTHING WRONG”. Across the street was a huge inflatable rat with a blond hairpiece.
Mueller-watchers had awaited Mr Stone’s indictment eagerly. The investigation was set up to look at “links and/or co-ordination” between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. Many links have already been revealed in indictments, but co-ordination has proved more elusive. Mr Stone, who both worked on the campaign for a while and seemed to have advance knowledge of the emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee by Russian military intelligence (the GRU) looked as if he might be the missing link.
CNN was so sure Mr Stone’s indictment was coming that the network had a camera team outside Mr Stone’s house when the FBI turned up to arrest him. On a similar hunch, The Economist had lunch with him in December in Fort Lauderdale. Asked then if he was worried about the special counsel’s investigation into links between Russia and Mr Trump’s campaign, he scoffed: “Worry? I don’t worry. I make other people worry.”
Mr Stone’s reputation as the kind of political operative imagined by screenwriters owes much to his own mythmaking. For a race he worked on early in his career, in his home state of Connecticut, he and other volunteers paced the platforms at a commuter railway station, passing out flyers with hot coffee in the mornings and freshly mixed martinis when the passengers returned in the evenings. His break came when working for Richard Nixon, a politician Mr Stone admires so much that he has the 37th president’s face tattooed between his shoulder blades. (“Man with Richard Nixon tattoo turns out to be a criminal,” was the headline on Popdust, a gossip website, after the indictment.) In his book about Nixon he writes, “I was drawn to Richard Nixon not because of his philosophy; he had none. It was his resilience and his indestructibility that attracted me.” Mr Stone says that Nixon was “exceptionally kind”, that he called him on his birthday, remembered his wife’s and dogs’ names and sent letters when his parents died.
After tasting success of a sort with Nixon, Mr Stone worked on Ronald Reagan’s ill-starred 1976 presidential campaign. The next year he was elected president of Young Republicans in a campaign managed by Paul Manafort, convicted by Mr Mueller’s team for felonies too numerous to list in a paper that prizes concision. When Reagan won at the second attempt, Mr Stone set up a lobbying firm, Black, Manafort and Stone, that became infamous for its work for Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and Jonas Savimbi in Angola, among others. The two men parted ways after selling the company in the 1990s. They were reunited on the Trump campaign, which Mr Manafort briefly ran while Mr Stone flitted about, laying claim to an influence over the candidate and tactics that was never spelled out.
The indictment fills in some gaps. It alleges that in June and July of 2016, after his official role with the campaign had ended, Mr Stone “informed senior Trump campaign officials that he had information indicating [WikiLeaks] had documents whose release would be damaging to the Clinton campaign.” WikiLeaks released its first batch of emails on July 22nd. Four days later Mr Trump had nearly erased Hillary Clinton’s lead. After the release, says the indictment, “a senior Trump Campaign official” was directed “to contact STONE about any additional releases and what other damaging information [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton campaign. STONE thereafter told the Trump campaign about potential future releases of damaging material by [WikiLeaks].”
Mr Mueller names neither the senior campaign official nor the person who “directed” him or her to contact Mr Stone. According to emails published by the New York Times, Mr Stone and Stephen Bannon, the campaign’s chief executive, exchanged emails about WikiLeaks in early October. Over lunch Mr Stone is acerbic about Mr Bannon. “I have trouble dealing with people who are slovenly,” says Mr Stone, a renowned clothes horse (he dressed down for lunch, wearing a white Oxford shirt and flat-fronted trousers, but did drop the name of his favourite Japanese tailor). “If you want to know what Steve Bannon had for lunch, just look at the front of his shirt.”
The indictment further alleges that Mr Stone made several other false statements regarding the nature of his communication with intermediaries in direct contact with Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, and with Mr Trump’s campaign. The witness-tampering charge stems from his alleged attempts to prevent one of those intermediaries from contradicting his testimony. Mr Stone advised the witness to “Stonewall it. Plead the fifth,” and later, “I’m not talking to the FBI and if your [sic] smart you won’t either.” When the intermediary proved less tractable than he desired, Mr Stone called him “a rat. A stoolie. You backstab your friends—run your mouth my lawyers are dying Rip you to shreds [sic].” He also threatened the witness’s therapy dog, Bianca, and suggested that he “Prepare to die”.
Over lunch in December, Mr Stone offered a lawyerly, expansive defence of his conduct. “There’s no evidence, or proof, and no one can honestly say that I had advance notice of the source, or the content or the exact release date of the WikiLeaks material either stolen—or I should say, allegedly stolen and allegedly hacked.” The word “exact” in that sentence is doing a great deal of work. Otherwise, says Mr Stone, “I am not guilty of any other crime in connection with the 2016 election,” and besides, “I’m not really sure receiving material from WikiLeaks would have been a crime had I done so.” Not everyone would be so sanguine: campaign-finance law bars foreign nationals from contributing—and campaigns from soliciting from them—money or any “thing of value” to an American political campaign.
Mr Stone says that his subsequent testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, another possible source of legal trouble for him, was “completely accurate and truthful”, and that “any discrepancy in my testimony would be immaterial.” The indictment alleges otherwise. The committee asked Mr Stone whether he had any documents concerning “discussions you have had with third parties about” Mr Assange. Mr Stone replied that he did not. The indictment alleges that in fact he had multiple emails and texts about Mr Assange, including one to a Trump supporter from October 3rd 2016 that read, “Spoke to my friend in London last night [presumably Mr Assange, who lives at the Ecuadorean embassy there]. The payload is still coming.” Four days later WikiLeaks released thousands of emails stolen from John Podesta, Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman.
Mr Trump’s spokesman said the indictment has “nothing to do with the president”, and called Mr Stone “somebody who has been a consultant for dozens of Republican presidents and candidates”. That is true, but it conceals the duration and depth of the relationship between Messrs Trump and Stone. They have been close since Mr Stone solicited donations from Donald and his father, Fred, for Reagan’s 1980 campaign. In 1988 Mr Stone oversaw the creation of a Draft Trump for President Committee, and arranged for supporters to hold “Trump for President” signs at a speech Mr Trump gave in New Hampshire. Mr Stone recalls that the speech was about how “our NATO partners are ripping us off…and our trading partners are fucking us.”
After he was released on bail, Mr Stone spent the weekend talking to any briefly stationary television camera. To a local news station in Florida he boasted, grinning, “There are four phases of fame: Who is Roger Stone? Get me Roger Stone. Get me a Roger Stone-type. Who is Roger Stone? I guess I’m in phase two at the moment.” Outside the Florida courthouse where he first appeared he vowed not to testify against Mr Trump; two days later he said he would consider co-operating with Mr Mueller, whose case against him he described as “thin as piss on a rock”. He decried the “Gestapo tactics” of his arrest, though that may have been because federal agents—who were on furlough because of the government shutdown but reportedly volunteered for the job—feared he would destroy evidence. He admitted to having made errors in his testimony but said they were “inconsequential within the scope of this investigation.”
Asked whether he thought Mr Stone did what was he has been accused of doing, a former colleague was circumspect: “I don’t know, but I think he would have liked to. He always had a way of putting himself at the centre of things, and in this case he may have talked himself into a jail sentence.”