The sentencing of convicted felon Roger Stone was abruptly derailed on February 11 2020, when all four of his prosecutors resigned on the same day that United States President Donald Trump, freshly emboldened by his impeachment acquittal the week before, went on a wild and accusatory rant on social media:
On Twitter, Trump referred to a Fox News story that accused some of the jurors in the case of political bias. “This is not looking good for the ‘Justice’ Department,” Trump tweeted.
Trump early on Tuesday criticized U.S. prosecutors who recommended a prison sentence of seven to nine years for Stone, whose friendship with the Republican president dates back decades. He called their sentencing recommendation “horrible” and a “miscarriage of justice.”
Just hours later, the Justice Department abandoned the recommendation of its own prosecutors. The move sent shockwaves through Washington and prompted all four prosecutors to quit the case, with one leaving the department altogether.
He also railed on the judge and specific jurors in the case, amid rumors swirling all week of a potential presidential pardon.
In addition, Trump yanked the nomination of Jessie Liu — a former U.S. Attorney who headed the office that oversaw Roger Stone’s case — for the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes. She left the administration entirely a day later, on February 12 2020.
Stone was convicted in November of seven felony counts: Obstruction of Congress, making false statements to Congress, and witness tampering with the House Intelligence Committee inquiry and the Russia probe from Special Counsel Robert Mueller:
In a sentencing filing Monday, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington argued that Stone’s conduct was exceptionally sinister because of the importance of those investigations and the danger of overseas influence on U.S. elections.
“Foreign election interference is the ‘most deadly adversar[y] of republican government,’” prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington wrote, quoting Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Paper No. 68. “Investigations into election interference concern our national security, the integrity of our democratic processes, and the enforcement of our nation’s criminal laws. These are issues of paramount concern to every citizen of the United States. Obstructing such critical investigations thus strikes at the very heart of our American democracy.”
What much of the coverage about Trump’s unprecedented interference in Stone’s sentencing failed to mention was that this is no random occurrence. Roger Stone’s connection with Donald Trump and his political career goes back decades. In 1999, for example, Stone was behind Trump’s presidential run at that time:
Trump’s lobbyist in Washington, Roger Stone, is helping his client consider a race. Stone, known in G.O.P. circles for his dapper dress and libertarian leanings, began urging the Donald to run last spring. Trump wasn’t interested. The developer had dabbled in politics at least once before. He spoke in New Hampshire in late 1987 but soon lost interest. Three weeks ago, Trump called Ventura, and the two talked politics. Ventura urged Trump to consider a run, pleading for a nonpolitician to carry the Reform Party flag. They discussed taxes, regulation and campaign-finance reform. Last week Ventura called Trump but did not commit to supporting him. After that call Trump asked Stone to assess how the New Yorker might fare under the ballot rules. “He is going to look at [the race] seriously,” Stone told TIME.
Stone’s relationship with Trump goes far further back than that, however, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2019:
Mr. Stone was introduced to Mr. Trump by hard-driving attorney Roy Cohn in 1979 when Mr. Stone was in New York organizing for Mr. Reagan’s presidential campaign, he has said publicly. Two years later, the Trump Organization hired a lobbying firm run by Messrs. Stone and Manafort.
Mr. Stone registered as a lobbyist on behalf of the Trump Organization in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to public records. Around that time, he began counseling Mr. Trump on his political ambitions, and the two became friends. Mr. Stone attended two of Mr. Trump’s weddings and both his parents’ funerals. Mr. Trump attended Mr. Stone’s wedding, Mr. Stone said in a previous interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Stone has been described almost affectionately by political reporters as a “dirty trickster,” an almost heroic Loki figure whose work outsmarted the media at every turn, but in reality it consisted of spectacle, smears, and disinformation as leverage to move or muddy national conversations and policy discourse — by his own admission:
Throughout his decades-long career operating in Republican circles, Stone, who has a likeness of Richard Nixon tattooed on his back, has taken pride in mastering the “black arts” of politics. He’s been accused of threatening political opponents, has been sued for defamation, and regularly spreads conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination and Hillary Clinton’s infidelity. He served as Trump’s Washington lobbyist in the late 1990s and early 2000s and has been encouraging him to run for president for more than a decade. “Roger’s relationship with Trump has been so interconnected that it’s hard to define what’s Roger and what’s Donald,” Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, said of Stone in a 2017 documentary. Though he wasn’t initially seen as an integral part of Trump’s campaign, he kept hovering — and now the dirty tricks have finally caught up with him.
The appearance of Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, should come as no surprise; he was Stone’s business partner throughout much of their working relationship. Manafort later became notorious for his smears and weaponized disinformation campaigns on behalf of authoritarians and dictators all over the world, as detailed in a 2016 Politico article focused on Manafort’s relationship with the Marcos regime:
According to Bonner’s book, the month before the contract was officially executed, first lady Imelda Marcos personally delivered the first $60,000 of what was intended to be a $950,000 contract during a visit to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly (where she ironically decried “injustice, intolerance, greed and dominance by the strong”).
Shortly after her speech, her husband, in a dramatic effort to prove he was not anti-democratic, announced in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week with David Brinkley,” that he would call for a snap election with more than one year left in his term.
Manafort revved into high gear, laying the groundwork for the Philippine foreign minister, Pacifico Castro, to visit the United States for three days to try to meet with U.S. officials, according to Justice Department documents and news accounts. He made plans for three prominent American conservative journalists—Robert Novak, John McLaughlin, and Fred Barnes—to visit the Philippines, according to Bonner’s book. And he worked to seed the idea in Washington conservative circles that Aquino, Marcos’s leading rival in the impending election, was soft on communism and would not be a reliable U.S. ally, according to the book.
But that was just the beginning of cozy relationships with authoritarian regimes enjoyed by the firm of Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly (with Lee Atwater over on the firm’s legal side), much of which was — then as now — accomplished by ferrying smears and disinformation from one camp to another using methods that were precursors of the weapons-grade firehosing that Americans began to experience in earnest on social media starting in 2016:
The firm’s most successful right-wing makeover was of the Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, a Maoist turned anti-communist insurgent, whose army committed atrocities against children and conscripted women into sexual slavery. During the general’s 1986 trip to New York and Washington, Manafort and his associates created what one magazine called “Savimbi Chic.” Dressed in a Nehru suit, Savimbi was driven around in a stretch limousine and housed in the Waldorf-Astoria and the Grand Hotel, projecting an image of refinement. The firm had assiduously prepared him for the mission, sending him monthly reports on the political climate in Washington. According to The Washington Post, “He was meticulously coached on everything from how to answer his critics to how to compliment his patrons.” Savimbi emerged from his tour as a much-championed “freedom fighter.” When the neoconservative icon Jeane Kirkpatrick introduced Savimbi at the American Enterprise Institute, she declared that he was a “linguist, philosopher, poet, politician, warrior … one of the few authentic heroes of our time.”
This was a racket—Savimbi paid the firm $600,000 in 1985 alone—that Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly did its best to keep alive; the firm’s own business was tied to Savimbi’s continued rebellion against Angola’s leftist regime. As the country stood on the brink of peace talks in the late ’80s, after nearly 15 years of bloody civil war, the firm helped secure fresh batches of arms for its client, emboldening Savimbi to push forward with his military campaign. Former Senator Bill Bradley wrote in his memoir, “When Gorbachev pulled the plug on Soviet aid to the Angolan government, we had absolutely no reason to persist in aiding Savimbi. But by then he had hired an effective Washington lobbying firm.” The war continued for more than a decade, killing hundreds of thousands of Angolans.
By 1986, Donald Trump had already been using that same lobbying firm for several years:
One of the first clients of the firm they christened Black, Manafort and Stone was a New York developer named Donald Trump, brought into their portfolio by Stone, who’d met him through the notorious Gotham lawyer Roy Cohn.
The brash Reagan boys would become essential architects of the city Trump now dominates, a place where the line between the lobbyists and the lobbied is so blurred that some question whether it exists at all.
By the time their business was born, they were already expert navigators of loopholes — Black and Stone, along with GOP operative John “Terry” Dolan, had founded the National Conservative Political Action Committee, best known as Nick-Pac, five years earlier. The hyperaggressive group was one of the first to bundle contributions to circumvent limits on individual campaign contributions, and it was a precursor to the rise of super PACs, which candidate Trump lambasted four decades later as prime examples of Washington’s swamp problem.
Manafort went on to work in several more countries, including Ukraine, where he those same disinformation and propaganda techniques — what he called “black ops,” but what really simply amounted to weaponized smear campaigns and backroom deals — in an attempt to boost the reputation of then-leader Viktor Yanukovych:
Manafort’s Ukraine strategy anticipated later efforts by the Kremlin and its troll factory to use Twitter and Facebook to discredit Clinton and to help Trump win the 2016 US election. The material seen by the Guardian dates from 2011 to 2013.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, has indicted Manafort on multiple counts. Manafort is accused of “laundering profits” from his lobbying work in Ukraine, carried out over a period of a decade for Yanukovych and his political party.
While Stone’s work stayed mainly in the United States, Manafort continued to take his show on the road, leaving a trail of propaganda, smears, and destabilized countries in his wake:
President Viktor F. Yanukovych, who owed his election to, as an American diplomat put it, an “extreme makeover” Mr. Manafort oversaw, bolted the country in the face of violent street protests. He found sanctuary in Russia and never returned, as his patron, President Vladimir V. Putin, proceeded to dismember Ukraine, annexing Crimea and fomenting a war in two other provinces that continues.
Mr. Kopachko, the pollster, said Mr. Manafort envisioned an approach that exploited regional and ethnic peculiarities in voting, tapping the disenfranchisement of those who felt abandoned by the Orange Revolution in eastern Ukraine, which has more ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.
Manafort eventually landed work as a “business consultant” in Ukraine for a Kremlin-linked oligarch named Dmytro Firtash, whose name came up more than once during impeachment proceedings against now-United States President Donald Trump (who was acquitted in a vote almost entirely along party lines in early 2020.) Firtash — who was indicted in 2014 on federal racketeering charges — was later tapped through proxies by Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor whose career has taken a new turn as Trump’s “personal lawyer.”
The idea was to dig up dirt on Trump’s perceived political rival and Firtash’s old nemesis from the Obama administration, former U.S. vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden. This dirt-digging would presumably be in exchange for delays or changes to his pending extradition to the United States:
In the case of Mr. Firtash, an energy tycoon with deep ties to the Kremlin who is facing extradition to the United States on bribery and racketeering charges, one of Mr. Giuliani’s associates has described offering the oligarch help with his Justice Department problems — if Mr. Firtash hired two lawyers who were close to President Trump and were already working with Mr. Giuliani on his dirt-digging mission. Mr. Firtash said the offer was made in late June when he met with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, both Soviet-born businessmen involved in Mr. Giuliani’s Ukraine pursuit.
Mr. Parnas’s lawyer, Joseph A. Bondy, confirmed that account and added that his client had met with Mr. Firtash at Mr. Giuliani’s direction and encouraged the oligarch to help in the hunt for compromising information “as part of any potential resolution to his extradition matter.”
And throughout this time, Roger Stone remained part of the political mix in the United States, eventually once again signing on to a Trump presidential campaign, utilizing the same techniques that his business partner Paul Manafort had used to great success for decades, often acting in concert with him in order to burnish Trump’s image and to smear his rivals. The evidence gathered by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team, and more that came out during Stone’s trial was enough to convince the jurors to convict him on seven felony counts:
On Aug. 3 , Stone sent an email to Manafort about the prospect of more damaging documents released about the Clinton campaign. “I have an idea … to save Trump’s ass,” Stone wrote to Manafort, his former ’80s-era lobbying partner whom he helped land a job atop the Trump campaign.
Less than two weeks later, Stone reached out to Bannon. “I do know how to win this but it ain’t pretty,” he wrote Bannon, who had just been announced that day as the campaign’s newly hired CEO.
Stone kept on relaying information about WikiLeaks’ damaging materials through the late summer and early fall, helping the Trump campaign assess alternate strategies at a time when it was down significantly in public polls. “Roger is an agent provocateur,” Bannon explained. “He’s an expert in opposition research. He’s an expert in the tougher side of politics. When you’re this far behind, you’re going to have to use every tool in the toolbox.”
By every account, that is what Stone did — pulling in old friends and business contacts in the process to help create spectacles, smears, and firehosing with the help of his fellow propagandists and disinformation purveyors — many of whom are now pausing from pushing corrosive conspiracy theories to start publicly calling, not at all coincidentally, for a presidential pardon even as the future of Stone’s sentencing still remains unclear, as does what may come next.