Trump’s long­time ad­viser en­dures

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Mege­rian Los An­ge­les Times

Far-right po­lit­i­cal strate­gist Roger Stone is en­veloped in in­famy and con­tro­versy.

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. — The sun had set out­side the ban­quet room when Roger Stone took the stage, a pale blue hand­ker­chief sprout­ing from the chest pocket of his dou­ble-breasted gray suit.

Hun­dreds of miles away in Wash­ing­ton, prose­cu­tors are as­sem­bling a case that could lead to Stone’s in­dict­ment in con­nec­tion with Rus­sia’s ef­forts to in­ter­fere with the 2016 elec­tion. But at a din­ner last week hosted by Amer­i­cans for Trump, a fan club for the pres­i­dent’s hard­core sup­port­ers, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is a punch line.

Stone pauses his speech to sip his drink through a cock­tail straw. “That was vodka, but not Rus­sian vodka, to be clear,” he as­sures the laugh­ing au­di­ence.

A few hun­dred peo­ple jam ta­bles and line the walls to hear from Stone, the 66-year-old vet­eran po­lit­i­cal strate­gist whose ties to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump date back four decades, longer than any of the pres­i­dent’s other ad­vis­ers. For this crowd, Stone is an au­then­tic emis­sary for the pres­i­dent they idol­ize, re­gard­less of any in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

He closes his speech with two pleas: Vote for Re­pub­li­cans — and do­nate to his le­gal de­fense fund.

Deny, deny, deny

Stone has spent his life tap­danc­ing be­tween fame and in­famy, court­ing con­tro­versy and em­brac­ing his rep­u­ta­tion as a dirty trick­ster while in­sist­ing he’s never bro­ken the law.

Now the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion has forced him into an un­usual po­si­tion: In­stead of claim­ing credit for an au­da­cious po­lit­i­cal stunt, he’s deny­ing any in­volve­ment.

The ques­tion that spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller and his in­ves­ti­ga­tors want to an­swer is whether Stone is linked to Wik­iLeaks and the re­lease two years ago of Demo­cratic Party emails hacked by Rus­sians. He’s de­nied wrong­do­ing and, de­spite a col­lec­tion of cir­cum­stan­tial clues, no clear ev­i­dence has be­come pub­lic to prove him wrong.

“I’ve al­ways made it clear that I prac­tice hard­ball pol­i­tics, but I draw the line at break­ing the law,” Stone said in an in­ter­view af­ter his speech.

Even within Trump’s col­or­ful col­lec­tion of friends and ad­vis­ers, Stone stands out.

A sense of his place in the po­lit­i­cal world can be gleaned sim­ply from the list of his as­so­ci­ates Mueller’s team has brought be­fore the grand jury. There’s Jerome Corsi, a lead­ing pro­po­nent of the false the­ory that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. And there’s Kristin Davis, bet­ter known as the “Man­hat­tan Madam” for her role run­ning a high­dol­lar New York pros­ti­tu­tion ring.

Also sub­poe­naed were Randy Credico, a lib­eral New York ra­dio host who per­formed im­pres­sions of po­lit­i­cal fig­ures dur­ing a news con­fer­ence af­ter his grand jury ap­pear­ance, and Sam Nun­berg, a one­time Trump cam­paign of­fi­cial who tes­ti­fied only af­ter a se­ries of manic me­dia ap­pear­ances in which he threat­ened to refuse to co­op­er­ate with prose­cu­tors.

In the midst of it all stands Stone, a man whose peers have var­i­ously de­scribed as a brag­gado­cious show­boat or one of his gen­er­a­tion’s sharpest po­lit­i­cal minds. What crit­ics and friends agree on is that he’s ruth­less and cal­cu­lat­ing.

“Po­lit­i­cally, he would push the en­ve­lope,” said Charles Black, a Repub­li­can strate­gist and lob­by­ist who has worked along­side Stone in the past. “If you had a need to run an at­tack ad on some­body, he would be the first to speak up and say, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

An in­dict­ment would be an ironic book­end to a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer that be­gan in scan­dal dur­ing the Water­gate era. Back then, Stone was a young vol­un­teer for Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s re­elec­tion com­mit­tee. Among other de­cep­tions, Stone do­nated money to a Demo­cratic cam­paign in the name of the “Young So­cial­ist Al­liance” — then sent the re­ceipt to the lo­cal news­pa­per.

Now the al­le­ga­tions are more dire.

Stone-splain­ing

As part of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Mueller has col­lected Stone’s pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions, in­ter­viewed his as­so­ci­ates and em­pan­eled a grand jury to re­view ev­i­dence. Stone said prose­cu­tors haven’t con­tacted him, a pos­si­ble sign that he’s a tar­get.

“If the grand jury and their in­ves­ti­ga­tion op­er­ates on the ba­sis of the facts and ev­i­dence, then ev­ery­thing will be fine,” he said in the in­ter­view.

A lot of those facts don’t look par­tic­u­larly good for Stone; he in­sists there’s an in­no­cent ex­pla­na­tion for ev­ery­thing.

In Au­gust 2016, Stone told a Florida Repub­li­can group that he had “com­mu­ni­cated with (Ju­lian) As­sange,” the leader of Wik­iLeaks. At that point, the or­ga­ni­za­tion had al­ready pub­lished emails hacked from the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee.

Now he says that, in truth, he merely knew some­one — Credico — who was in touch with As­sange. Credico has de­nied that he served as a back chan­nel be­tween As­sange and Stone.

Later that month, Stone tweeted, “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the bar­rel.” Shortly af­ter­ward, Wik­iLeaks be­gan re­leas­ing thou­sands of emails hacked from the ac­count of John Podesta, Clin­ton’s cam­paign chair­man.

Stone claims the gram­mat­i­cally chal­lenged tweet ac­tu­ally re­ferred to “the Podestas,” mean­ing John and his brother Tony, a prom­i­nent lob­by­ist un­der scru­tiny for work on be­half of Ukraine’s for­mer gov­ern­ment.

Stone also made a cameo, al­beit un­named, in a July in­dict­ment from Mueller’s of­fice. Rus­sian mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers, us­ing the on­line per­sona Guc­cifer 2.0 to dis­guise their in­volve­ment, al­legedly wrote to “a per­son who was in reg­u­lar con­tact with se­nior mem­bers” of Trump’s cam­paign and pointed him to­ward a hacked Demo­cratic Party doc­u­ment that had been posted on­line, the in­dict­ment charges.

Stone, who had al­ready posted on his blog what he de­scribed as the en­tire ex­change with Guc­cifer 2.0, said the mes­sages were in­nocu­ous and don’t in­clude any ref­er­ences to emails or up­com­ing re­leases.

Stone in­sisted there’s no proof of a con­spir­acy be­cause there wasn’t one. He never had in­side in­for­ma­tion on the hack­ing or when emails would be pub­lished, he said, nor was it a topic of con­ver­sa­tion be­tween him and Trump or cam­paign of­fi­cials.

But if there’s sus­pi­cion, it’s due in part to Stone him­self, who has dropped plenty of bread crumbs about a con­nec­tion to Wik­iLeaks. He once told Nun­berg that he had din­ner in Lon­don with his “new pal” As­sange. Stone later said he was jok­ing, and Nun­berg agrees.

“I don’t be­lieve that Roger had ac­tual com­mu­ni­ca­tions with him,” Nun­berg said. “He was do­ing what Roger does best, which is in­sin­u­at­ing him­self into his­tory.”

Stone said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion has be­come an un­pleas­ant cloud over him and his fam­ily, but he’s also em­braced the mo­ment out of ne­ces­sity.

For starters, he said, the at­ten­tion is good for his le­gal bills, which he ex­pects to reach $2 mil­lion. The more cov­er­age he re­ceives, the more do­na­tions he gets.

He also be­lieves there’s no use tak­ing the Fifth in the court of pub­lic opin­ion.

“When you don’t com­ment, peo­ple as­sume you’re hid­ing some­thing,” Stone said.

Proud Boys

The Amer­i­cans for Trump event gave Stone an op­por­tu­nity to tell his side of the story, es­pe­cially in the wake of what he de­scribes as un­fair news cov­er­age.

Stone ar­rived with an en­tourage from the Proud Boys, a right-wing group that de­scribes it­self as “Western chau­vin­ists” but which crit­ics call a vi­o­lent, racist gang.

Ac­cord­ing to Stone, the group is nei­ther big­oted nor vi­o­lent. He said he’s faced death threats, and the Proud Boys serve as his se­cu­rity, clear­ing a path and stand­ing sen­try as he grants in­ter­views.

The Proud Boys were ea­ger to do their part. When a man try­ing to reach the restau­rant’s out­door bar brushed past Stone, who was speak­ing to the con­ser­va­tive out­let News­max, one of the guards tried to stop him, nearly lead­ing to a shov­ing match.

But other than that brief al­ter­ca­tion, Stone was on friendly turf with a col­lec­tion of Trump su­per­fans who had spent at least $35 for tick­ets to the three-course din­ner.

A toast to Brett Ka­vanaugh’s Supreme Court con­fir­ma­tion, which oc­curred af­ter he de­nied al­le­ga­tions of com­mit­ting a drunken sex­ual as­sault while in high school, was led by a man wear­ing judge’s robes and hold­ing a gavel in one hand and a beer in the other. When a singer pre­pared to de­liver the na­tional an­them, she re­minded the crowd that there would be “no tak­ing a knee.” The group’s pres­i­dent, a per­sonal in­jury and med­i­cal mal­prac­tice at­tor­ney named Scott New­mark, car­ries a brief­case with a bumper sticker that says, “Drain the swamp fire Mueller!”

He was thrilled to have Stone speak at the din­ner.

“He’s beloved. He’s loyal. He’s pas­sion­ate. He’s a de­fender,” New­mark said.

Mover and shaker

Stone has as­so­ci­ated him­self with a broad range of provo­ca­teurs and con­spir­acy the­o­rists. Five days a week, he hosts a ra­dio show on In­foWars, which is run by Alex Jones, who hawks testos­terone sup­ple­ments and has sug­gested that school shoot­ings were faked. Stone doesn’t in­dulge in that par­tic­u­lar con­spir­acy the­ory him­self, and he notes that he also ap­pears on CNN, even though he doesn’t agree with ev­ery­thing said there, ei­ther.

In the mean­time, Stone also dishes out ad­vice to long­shot Repub­li­can can­di­dates like Omar Navarro, who is run­ning to re­place Rep. Maxine Wa­ters, D-Calif.

“He’s a mover and shaker in this world,” Navarro said of Stone. “He’s a very in­spi­ra­tional guy. He’s got a lot of peo­ple who ad­mire his work.”

For a time in the 1980s, that work in­cluded his in­volve­ment, along with Black and Paul Manafort, in a firm that broke new ground — or crossed an eth­i­cal line — by com­bin­ing po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing and gov­ern­ment lob­by­ing un­der one roof.

Stone even­tu­ally de­cided that the life of a lob­by­ist wasn’t for him.

“We were try­ing to build a white-shoe estab­lish­ment lob­by­ing firm. And Roger didn’t like it,” Black said. “He’d just tell me it was bor­ing.”

Trump was more Stone’s speed. They were first con­nected by Roy Cohn, the no­to­ri­ous lawyer and fixer in New York, when Stone was rais­ing money for Ron­ald Reagan’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Stone later served as Trump’s lob­by­ist and po­lit­i­cal whis­perer, pe­ri­od­i­cally en­cour­ag­ing him to run for of­fice.

“I wanted him to run for pres­i­dent since 1988,” Stone said.

Trump was the per­fect fit for Stone’s for­tune cookie po­lit­i­cal wis­dom, which in­cludes procla­ma­tions such as “At­tack, at­tack, at­tack — never de­fend” and “Pol­i­tics is not about unit­ing peo­ple, it’s about di­vid­ing peo­ple.”

‘I fired Trump’

But by the time Trump ac­tu­ally launched his White House bid in 2015, Stone didn’t last long on the cam­paign.

Corey Le­wandowski, who served as the first of Trump’s three cam­paign man­agers, calls Stone “a se­rial liar” who “no longer had any value” and was booted from the op­er­a­tion.

“He said, ‘Well, I’m go­ing to quit,’ ” Le­wandowski re­called. “And I said, ‘Well, you’re al­ready fired.’ And he said, ‘You can’t fire me be­cause I’m about to quit.’ ”

Af­ter the story broke, Stone in­sisted he quit first. “I fired Trump,” he tweeted.

Stone and Trump re­mained in touch, how­ever, a re­minder that their re­la­tion­ship has en­dured ups and downs be­fore.

In 2008, Trump told The New Yorker that “Roger is a stone-cold loser.” Then, in the 2017 doc­u­men­tary “Get Me Roger Stone,” Trump said Stone “un­der­stands pol­i­tics” and “he’s very good at it.”

For now, the re­la­tion­ship seems to be on hold be­cause of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Stone be­lieves the last time he talked to the pres­i­dent was af­ter Re­pub­li­cans pushed their tax cut leg­is­la­tion through Con­gress last year.

“I think his at­tor­neys have sug­gested that it’s best that we not speak un­til this mat­ter is cul­mi­nated,” Stone said.

JOE RAE­DLE/GETTY

Roger Stone

DANIEL HULSHIZER/AP

Roger Stone fol­lows Don­ald Trump out of a fed­eral court­house in Ne­wark, N.J., in 1999. Stone’s ties to now-Pres­i­dent Trump date back four decades, longer than any of the pres­i­dent’s other ad­vis­ers.

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