Trump hovers over Roger Stone trial in testimony on Clinton leaks

Andrew Harris
Bloomberg News

Washington – Thrilled by the release of stolen Democratic emails in mid-2016, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman at the time said he would brief Trump if WikiLeaks planned to publish more dirt, a top aide said at the criminal trial of Republican political operative Roger Stone.

The chairman, Paul Manafort, “indicated he was going to be updating other people on the campaign, including the candidate,” deputy chairman Rick Gates testified Tuesday.

Roger Stone leaves the federal court Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.

The jury then heard Gates recount a car ride with Trump in which Stone told Trump on the phone that more documents damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign were coming – contrary to answers the president gave in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the election.

Federal prosecutors in Washington are trying to convince a jury that Stone, a longtime ally of Trump, lied to Congress about his communications with the campaign and with WikiLeaks, obstructed a congressional probe and tampered with a witness. Prosecutors called Gates, who has been cooperating with the government, to provide jurors with a glimpse of the campaign, recount Stone’s conversations and show Stone’s inside knowledge of what was coming. Stone could face years in prison if convicted.

The government then rested its case, and the defense followed suit, after only four days of testimony in a trial the judge had warned the jury could last as long as three weeks. In the end, the U.S. called only five witnesses. There were brief turns on the stand by former campaign chief executive Steve Bannon and attorney Margaret Kunstler, an associate of star witness (and comedian) Randy Credico. Stone will not testify.

Jurors will hear closing arguments Wednesday afternoon.

With Gates, prosecutors focused on evidence they said showed that the Trump campaign knew of the embarrassing document dumps in store for the Clinton team and that Stone was the liaison. Gates told jurors the campaign was “in a state of happiness” after WikiLeaks released its first tranche of stolen emails in the summer of 2016. Afterward, he said, he listened as Stone told Manafort over the phone that “additional information would be coming out down the road.”

“Mr. Manafort thought that was great” and said he would brief Trump and others, Gates testified.

Prosecutors were building on earlier testimony from Bannon portraying Stone as the campaign’s “access point” to WikiLeaks and its trove of Clinton documents. At one point, Gates testified to a phone conversation between Stone and Trump himself that took place while Gates was in a car with the candidate. Gates said Trump told him, after the conversation, that more Clinton dirt was in the offing.

In written responses to Mueller, Trump had said he didn’t recall being aware of any communications between Manafort or Stone and WikiLeaks. Trump’s phone call with Stone was cited in Mueller’s report, with heavy redactions.

In his report, Mueller said “the evidence does not establish that the president was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.” But he pointed to possible motives for a cover-up, including Trump’s concern that advance notice of WikiLeaks’ releases “could be seen as criminal activity by the president, his campaign, or his family.”

Manafort was convicted of bank fraud, tax fraud and other charges last year after federal trial in Alexandria, Va. He later pleaded guilty to separate federal charges in Washington and is serving a total of 7 1/2 years in prison.

Gates, who was charged as a co-defendant in both of those matters, pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government. He testified against Manafort in Alexandria and against former White House counsel Greg Craig in a failed illegal-lobbying prosecution in September. Gates is likely to be sentenced next month.

Gates testified that, to his knowledge, the WikiLeaks guidance Stone provided to the campaign was otherwise not publicly known – contradicting Stone’s assertions that his Twitter predictions of troubling disclosures on the Clinton campaign were just educated guesses based on public knowledge.

After June 2016 news reports of the hack of Democratic National Committee computers, for which U.S. intelligence would later blame Russia, Stone told Gates he thought damaging information was coming and asked him for contact information for the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, and for political director Jim Murphy, Gates testified.

When that information was slow in coming, Manafort asked Gates to check with Stone, unsure whether the operative’s information was “viable,” Gates said.

While awaiting those disclosures, Gates said, there were “brainstorming sessions” involving him, Manafort and policy adviser Stephen Miller about how the campaign would respond if and when the information became public.

In court on Tuesday, Stone’s defense attorneys asked Gates only a few questions during cross-examination, raising his prior admitted criminal conduct to erode his credibility with the jury.

Stone’s lawyers filed papers asking U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson for an acquittal, arguing that the U.S. had failed to prove that either of the men the government said acted as intermediaries between Stone and WikiLeaks – trial witness Credico and conservative author Jerome Corsi – actually did.

“Stone is not charged with misleading Congress into believing there was an intermediary when there was not,” they said in the filing. “The government’s theory is that there were two intermediaries and Stone lied about communicating with them and producing documents relating to them.”

In court, with the jury out of the room, prosecutor Jonathan Kravis countered that the relevant question wasn’t the dictionary definition of “intermediary” but “how Mr. Stone introduced the term” into a 2017 hearing held by the House Intelligence Committee – the panel he’s charged with lying to. All the questions the U.S. says Stone falsely answered relate to that initial exchange, the prosecutor said.

Jackson, who briefly heard arguments from both sides, didn’t rule on the defense motion, which she said she will consider.

The defense claims the government wrenched Stone’s answers to the House committee out of context. The last evidence the jury heard Tuesday was excerpts of Stone’s testimony before the committee in which he is heard telling Trey Gowdy, then a Republican U.S. representative of South Carolina, “I colluded with no Russians.” He denied any knowledge of the president having conspired with Russia either.

The case is U.S. v. Stone, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).