Special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday unveiled the indictment of Trump ally Roger Stone, opening a new chapter in the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The court filings shed some startling new light on how President Donald Trump’s campaign allegedly eagerly tried to benefit from Russian meddling in real time.
Stone denies colluding with the Russian government and said he plans to plead not guilty and fight the charges, which include obstruction, lying to Congress and witness tampering.
Here’s what we learned and how it fits into the bigger picture.
Direction from above to get WikiLeaks intel
The most damning part of the 24-page indictment directly connects the highest echelon of the Trump campaign to Stone’s alleged effort to glean inside information about future WikiLeaks dumps.
It reads: “After the July 22, 2016 release of stolen DNC emails by (WikiLeaks), 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).”
This paragraph makes it clear that Mueller believes Stone was not engaged in a rogue quest to contact WikiLeaks. Rather, Stone is alleged to have coordinated some of his efforts with the Trump campaign. And someone at the tippy-top of the campaign power structure directed a “senior” official to ask Stone to make it happen, according to the indictment. The big question remains: Who was it?
It’s unknown whether Stone’s indictment is the final word on WikiLeaks or yet another building block toward a larger campaign conspiracy. If the Trump team back-channeled with WikiLeaks to schedule its releases for Trump’s maximum benefit – as has been alluded to in draft court filings obtained by CNN – that could potentially violate campaign finance laws.
Stone’s role with the Trump campaign
An unconventional politician, Trump regularly looks to a coterie of informal advisers and friends for advice. This is true today and was a big part of his campaign – and Stone was a key player.
Stone is an exaggerator, but during the campaign, he claimed he spoke with Trump on a near-weekly basis and was in regular contact with then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Stone said those conversations continued after Manafort resigned, and that Manafort was “keeping in touch with a lot of friends in the campaign.”
Court filings from Mueller tell a more definitive story. The indictment says Stone “maintained regular contact with … the Trump Campaign through the 2016 election” and described how he communicated with “senior Trump Campaign officials” about upcoming WikiLeaks releases. On at least one occasion, the campaign reached out to Stone for information about WikiLeaks, according to court filings.
They knew Russia was behind the hacks
The first words of the indictment note that Russia’s responsibility for the hacks was well-known before Stone or anyone on the Trump campaign allegedly secretly sought information about WikiLeaks.
The Democratic National Committee announced in June 2016 that it had been hacked and Russia was the culprit. Hillary Clinton’s campaign regularly made this point, though Trump and his team repeatedly dismissed Russia’s role and questioned whether there had been any hacks at all.
After that announcement, according to the indictment, Stone asked his associates to “get to” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London and seek information. (This was around the same time that Trump publicly asked Russia to hack Clinton’s emails.)
Stone got word from Assange that more releases was coming in October, and relayed that tip to Trump’s orbit, according to the indictment. Meanwhile, the US intelligence community publicly confirmed that Russia was trying to influence the election by leaking Democrats’ private emails.
WikiLeaks soon started publishing Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s hacked emails, and a Trump campaign associate texted Stone “well done,” according to the indictment. Trump publicly embraced WikiLeaks and cited these leaked materials at nearly all of his campaign rallies during the closing weeks of the campaign. He went on to a stunning victory over Clinton.
Mueller started closing the loop
Mueller has now closed the loop between the Russian government, WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign. But he has yet to charge anyone in a grand collusion conspiracy.
His 2018 indictment of Russian intelligence officers formally established how the Kremlin hacked Democratic targets and facilitated public releases through WikiLeaks. This was done to influence the US presidential election and help Trump win, per US intelligence agencies.
The Stone indictment completed the other half of the equation. It alleges ties between Trump’s campaign to WikiLeaks and the email leaks that severely weakened Clinton’s hand down the stretch.
It’s anyone’s guess if Mueller will continue connecting the dots, or if this is all that’s left. More indictments could be in the cards if evidence is found of additional campaign coordination with WikiLeaks or the Russians. Alternatively, this could be the extent of the “collusion” web. Time will tell.
Mueller clearly doesn’t trust Stone
Stone is not the first Trump associate to face charges in the Russia investigation (he’s the sixth, actually), but he is the first to be arrested by FBI agents raiding his home with guns drawn. The spectacle unfolded in Florida, but the indictment was handed up one day earlier by the special counsel’s grand jury in Washington. Mueller’s team asked a judge to keep it secret until Stone’s arrest.
They wrote: “Law enforcement believes that publicity resulting from disclosure of the Indictment and related materials on the public record prior to arrest will increase the risk of the defendant fleeing and destroying (or tampering with) evidence. It is therefore essential that any information concerning the pending indictment in this district be kept sealed prior to the defendant’s arrest.”
The request was granted. And after Stone was released Friday on $250,000 bond, he was adamant as ever, telling reporters outside the federal courthouse that he was prepared to fight the charges. And he said he would never “bear false witness” and testify against Trump.
Stone will be arraigned Tuesday in Washington.
The beginning of the end?
There are a few clues suggesting that this might be the beginning of the end for Mueller.
The Stone indictment offered a new clue. This is the first time where special counsel prosecutors are jointly working with prosecutors from another US attorney’s office to bring a case. That could suggest that Mueller doesn’t intend for his team to see the case through the trial, which could be months away, and instead hand it off to Justice Department colleagues.
A few factors are already in the ether. A few prosecutors have left Mueller’s team. Mueller is already writing his final report, CNN reported in November. And the imminent departure of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is seen as a signal that Mueller could be wrapping up.