/The Idiot’s Guide to the Roger Stone trial

The Idiot’s Guide to the Roger Stone trial

Stone’s case will also be argued in front of a jury at the same time House Democrats escalate their own impeachment investigation into Trump by collecting evidence suggesting the president pressured Ukraine to assist his 2020 reelection bid. While the issues at the center of Stone’s trial are unrelated to the emerging Ukraine controversy, documents that circulated during the period since the GOP operative’s indictment actually fed some of the unfounded, Trump-boosted theories about Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 U.S. election.

When it’s all said and done, the four-decade-old Stone-Trump relationship could be tested like never before should Stone be convicted and the president faces pressure from his base to issue an election-year pardon.

Yeah, it’s enough to make one’s head spin. But don’t worry, POLITICO is here with your handy guide to the Roger Stone trial.

So what’s this all about again?

It seems like ages ago, but it was only January when Stone got indicted for lying to Congress and obstructing its 2016 Russia probe.

You may remember the predawn raid that CNN caught on film thanks to a reporter and cameraman who took a chance staking out Stone’s South Florida home. Or the fiery news conference Stone gave later that afternoon after his arrest and booking at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale.

Turns out, the charges lodged against Stone were the last to come from Mueller before he closed up shop less than two months later. Fast forward to November. Jurors over the next two to three weeks will be asked to determine Stone’s guilt or innocence on seven counts that essentially boil down to whether he obstructed House Intelligence Committee investigators starting in mid-2017 with false testimony, lying about having relevant records and then tampering with another witness.

Stone has pleaded not guilty to the charges and has been out on bond since his initial arrest.

I thought Mueller was done, will I learn anything new from the trial?

There’s a good chance.

Between the final Mueller report and a series of lengthy indictments, the now-former special counsel has laid out a plethora of evidence about Russian election interference aimed at boosting Trump. But his office never went to trial in any of its cases focused on Russian meddling, WikiLeaks or the congressional probes into those efforts (recall that former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s trial last year was over bank fraud and tax evasion).

That means Stone’s trial will be the first time those Russia-related issues will be laid out in front of a jury, although U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who’s overseeing the case, made clear Monday she wants to keep things focused on Stone’s alleged false statements and obstruction of justice. She’s likely loath to let the trial devolve into a squabble over unfounded conspiracies about who hacked the Democrats’ emails and then released them in the thick of the 2016 White House race, or the Trump campaign’s possible links to Russian intermediaries.

That might be hard, though.

One mystery that might come up is an oblique reference in the Mueller report to Trump receiving a phone call from an unidentified person in the summer of 2016 who seems to have informed him about upcoming email dumps that would hurt his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Rick Gates, a key Manafort deputy who is expected to testify during the Stone trial, was in the car with Trump at the time. Redactions in the Mueller report suggest Stone’s involvement in the episode.

The trial could also shed more light on Stone’s interactions with the online persona Guccifer 2.0 — a Russian front, according to intelligence officials — that was behind the release of hacked Democratic emails.

“please tell me if i can help u anyhow. it would be a great pleasure to me,” the mysterious Guccifer wrote in a private message to Stone amid the releases.

Does this matter for impeachment?

Stone’s trial inevitably has overlap with the Democratic impeachment effort, which centers on the president pressuring Ukraine’s leaders to launch investigations into his political opponents.

That connection is all about CrowdStrike, the cyberfirm that the Democratic National Committee hired to investigate its email breach during the 2016 campaign.

In his much-scrutinized July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president, Trump raised the idea that Kyiv could do him a “favor” by launching an investigation into the company over its work during the last presidential election.

Trump’s request appears to have originated from a conspiracy theory Stone has been pushing in his own legal defense. According to Stone’s court filings, the government relied only on the “inconclusive and unsubstantiated” CrowdStike report when it blamed Russia for the DNC hack, failing to collect any direct evidence from the DNC itself.

Department of Justice prosecutors countered that they did in fact reach their conclusions independently. Yet the unfounded allegations continue to linger as part of broader baseless conspiracies about CrowdStrike’s ties to Ukraine and whether the company somehow helped frame Russia for the hacks.

During a pretrial hearing Monday, Jackson warned Stone’s attorneys not to stray into such territory, noting the case to be argued before the jury has nothing to do with the Russian hackings.

Even if the hacks heard round the world don’t come up, the trial’s optics and outcome will inevitably play into the impeachment debate.

Trump and his GOP allies would celebrate a Stone acquittal as more proof that the Mueller investigation was an ill-premised “witch hunt” that has morphed into the current impeachment inquiry.

Democrats are also keeping close tabs on Stone. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, who’s leading the Democrats’ impeachment probe, cited Stone’s court case in a letter last month to lawmakers defending his use of closed-door depositions as he gathers information about Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign. The strategy has been a major point of contention for Republicans.

“It is of paramount importance to ensure that witnesses cannot coordinate their testimony with one another to match their description of events, or potentially conceal the truth,” the California Democrat wrote.

Who are the key players at the trial?

Mueller may be long gone, but his fingerprints are all over this case.

The special counsel handed off its Stone file to the U.S. attorneys’ office in Washington, D.C., which during the trial will be represented by two career federal prosecutors, Michael Marando and Jonathan Kravis. But they will be joined at the government’s table by former Mueller lawyers Aaron Zelinsky and Adam Jed, who have since returned to jobs at the Justice Department.

For his part, Stone is leaning on a team of South Florida-based lawyers that includes Bruce Rogow, a First Amendment expert who in the early 1990s represented the rap group 2 Live Crew; Robert Buschel, a well-known defense attorney in Broward County and an aspiring novelist; and Grant Smith, whose father, Larry Smith, served in Congress as a Florida Democrat.

Judge Jackson’s name may sound familiar, too. The Obama appointee who took the bench in 2011 has been at the center of Mueller-led cases dealing with Manafort, Gates and Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch attorney whose 30-day jail sentence made him the first person to go to prison in the Mueller probe.

Prosecutors designated Stone’s case as related to those earlier ones, which caused it to be assigned to Jackson. Stone’s attorneys were apparently eager to have it reassigned and fought the designation, but she turned down their request.

Who’s going to be on the witness stand?

Prepare for Trumpworld to descend on the D.C. courthouse.

Bannon, the former Trump 2016 campaign manager, is likely to give testimony describing his communications with Stone during the campaign.

Bannon and Stone have bad blood going back at least a couple years. Stone publicly advocated for Bannon’s firing from the White House by calling him “a spent force” who was more focused on self-promotion than helping Trump fulfill his campaign promises.

“He did a lot to help himself but not much to help us,” Stone declared at the time. Bannon was axed the next day.

The two men’s feud continued into the fall of 2018, when a report emerged that Bannon had testified to a grand jury investigating Stone. The longtime GOP operative fired back with a brutal Daily Caller column entitled, “The Treachery of Steve Bannon.”

Another key witness will be Randy Credico, the therapy dog-toting liberal talk show host. Credico was close to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Stone pumped him for information about the website’s plans to release damaging emails pilfered from Clinton’s campaign. Credico’s decision not to testify before Congress is central to the government’s charge that Stone tried to intimidate a witness. DOJ prosecutors said they intend to question Credico about Stone’s text messages from April 2018 telling him he would “take that dog away from you” and also urging him to “do a Frank Pentangeli.” The latter is a reference to a scene from the “Godfather Part II” in which a character backtracks on giving Congress incriminating testimony about the Corleone crime family.

Other figures expected on the stand include Gates, the deputy Trump campaign chairman who was indicted in 2017 on a slew of charges alongside Manafort, his longtime boss. Gates pleaded guilty to two felony charges early last year and has been assiduously cooperating with prosecutors in a bid to minimize his yet-to-be-determined sentence.

A potential wild card witness is Jerome Corsi, a conspiracy-minded author who exchanged emails with Stone about reaching out to Assange while the WikiLeaks founder was cooped up at the time at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Corsi appears to have come close to facing criminal charges of his own in the Mueller probe. He announced a year ago that he turned down the Mueller team’s bid to have him plead guilty to perjury. Corsi was never charged.

And given Stone’s attention-seeking reputation, many outside observers expect he will indeed take the witness stand in his defense. It’s a risky move that most people in his position wouldn’t take.

But “Roger Stone is definitely not like most,” said Annemarie McAvoy, a former Gates defense attorney. “He loves the spotlight, and he likely feels no one can explain better than him why he is not guilty of anything.”

What’s Stone’s defense?

We’ll find out during the trial, but Stone and his attorneys have telegraphed at least some of their case over the past 10 months.

Some of the legal wrangling has been totally unrelated to actual charges.

In July, Jackson banned Stone from using Facebook, Twitter or any social media after he had been hauled before the judge several times over his commentary about the case. Most notably, Stone got in trouble for an Instagram post in February that appeared to show a gun’s crosshairs above a picture of Jackson’s head, prompting Stone to take the witness stand and issue an apology.

As for the actual merits of the charges, Stone’s attorneys have argued that their client was selectively prosecuted because of his politics. But that hasn’t exactly gone over well with the judge, either. In August, Jackson denied a motion to dismiss the case, saying Stone’s arguments were “made up out of whole cloth.”

Still, don’t expect Stone to cave.

He has been helping fund his legal defense by selling $33 T-shirts that declare he “did nothing wrong!” Stone has also sent repeated signals he has no intention of pleading guilty or flipping on Trump.

“There’s nothing I could tell them that could be damaging to the president,” he told POLITICO in May 2018. Close friends see no change to that stance now.

“Roger is committed to taking this all the way through to the end because he believes in America,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump 2016 campaign aide and longtime Stone friend who is planning to attend the D.C. trial. “This whole rotten system that they called justice has never encountered a man like Roger Stone. Cause he’s got balls the size of maracas buddy and he believes in this country in his marrow.”

What’s Stone looking at if he’s convicted?

In theory, the 67-year-old Stone could be put away for life — but don’t expect that.

While Stone could face up to 50 years, his actual potential sentence would likely be much less than the maximum.

If Stone is found guilty on any of the counts, Jackson will have to calculate the sentencing guidelines. She isn’t obligated to follow them, however. The guidelines could vary dramatically depending on the ultimate conviction, meaning the range could fall anywhere from just a few months to several years. Notably, judges almost never give near the maximum in these type of white-collar cases.

Any Stone jail sentence would inevitably set up the question of a presidential pardon or commutation as the 2020 campaign kicks into full swing.

For Trump’s part, he appears to have been following along. In January, Trump fired off a series of tweets after Stone’s indictment questioning why the special counsel had targeted his longtime associate but not turned the focus back on prominent former law enforcement officials and Clinton.

Then he added, “Roger Stone didn’t even work for me anywhere near the Election!”