clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Roger Stone, explained: the longtime Trump adviser and dirty trickster is in Mueller’s sights

He had shady contacts with WikiLeaks and Russian hackers. Is he headed toward an indictment?

Roger Stone speaks to the media after appearing before the House Intelligence Committee during a closed door hearing on September 26, 2017.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Maybe it’s no surprise that special counsel Robert Mueller would zero in on the guy who has Richard Nixon’s face tattooed on his back — Roger Stone.

Mueller has interviewed or subpoenaed at least eight people close to the longtime Trump adviser, dirty trickster, and former Paul Manafort business partner. His team has quizzed them, extensively, on what Stone was up to in 2016. “They want me to testify against Roger,” one witness, Sam Nunberg, said. Stone told NBC recently that he was “prepared” for an indictment “should that be the case” — though he denies any wrongdoing.

The full extent of Stone’s role in trying to help Donald Trump win the presidency has long been a mystery — and we’re still learning new information about what exactly he did. But we do know there are several curious links between him and the main players in the hacking and leaking of Democrats’ emails, an operation attributed to Russia’s government.

For one, Stone exchanged private messages with “Guccifer 2.0”— the online persona that professed to being behind the email hacking. Last Friday’s Mueller indictment alleges that Russian intelligence officials controlled the Guccifer 2.0 account, and even quoted a few of its interactions with Stone — though Mueller didn’t identify Stone by name or charge him with anything.

Additionally, Stone had private contacts with WikiLeaks, and publicly claimed inside knowledge about Julian Assange’s plans to release damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Plus, he recently admitted that he’d also met with a Russian national who called himself “Henry Greenberg,” who he says offered him dirt on Hillary Clinton and asked him for $2 million.

In all of these cases, Stone denies that anything untoward took place. But his story often changes. So what, exactly, did he do in 2016? Was it legal? And what did Trump know about it? (Indeed, one of the leaked questions Mueller’s team is said to want to ask the president is: “What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?”)

Yet Stone is more than just a Trump adviser, or a figure in Mueller’s probe. He’s something of a legend in Republican politics, the subject of many an excellent profile and even a great Netflix documentary. That’s because he’s a Zelig-like figure who’s shown up at an extraordinary number of key events in political history over the past four and a half decades — going all the way back to Richard Nixon and Watergate.

Who is Roger Stone?

Every good supervillain has an origin story, and Stone’s reputation as a dirty trickster was birthed in the Watergate scandal.

Roger Stone at his office in Florida in 2014. (He’s really into Nixon.)
Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images

In 1972, President Richard Nixon was facing a hopeless, doomed primary challenge from Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA). Even still, before the New Hampshire primary, 19-year-old Roger Stone, an enthusiastic Nixon backer, made some mischief for the challenger. He sent McCloskey donations, under a pseudonym, that he said were from the “Young Socialist Alliance” — and then leaked it to the press to embarrass McCloskey.

The scheme came to light during the subsequent congressional Watergate hearings, giving Stone his first brush with national infamy and leading to his departure from Sen. Bob Dole’s office. But the young operative didn’t let this keep him down — he’d continue to rise in prominence in Republican circles as the years went on, and would be at the center of several major changes in US politics, such as:

  • The rise of outside campaign money: In 1975, Stone co-founded NCPAC, which became one of the first well-funded outside groups that would controversially bombard congressional candidates with negative ads.
  • The Reagan revolution: Stone worked for both Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful 1976 campaign (as national youth director) and the 1980 bid that made him president (as political director for the Northeast). His specialty was trying to convince working-class voters who had traditionally supported Democrats to vote for Reagan instead.
  • The rise of super-lobbying: Rather than join the new administration, Stone and fellow Reagan operatives Paul Manafort and Charlie Black decided to monetize their connections, founding the powerhouse lobbying and PR firm Black, Manafort, and Stone. The firm would become notorious for representing brutal dictators like Angola’s Jonas Savimbi alongside mainstream corporations.

By 1985, Stone was 32 years old and making $450,000 a year (adjusted for inflation, that would be more than $1 million today), according to a classic profile by Jacob Weisberg that dubbed him “the state of the art Washington sleazeball.”

From left: Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Lee Atwater in March 1985, when they were lobbying partners.
Harry Naltchayan/The Washington Post via Getty

Stone continued to be a pillar of the Washington Republican establishment. He worked for George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, and then was a senior consultant for Bob Dole’s 1996 run against President Bill Clinton.

But it was during that latter campaign that Stone’s life changed, when the National Enquirer revealed that he (then a top aide to the GOP presidential nominee) and his wife had run ads in a swinger magazine, hoping to set up group sex encounters. At the time, Stone claimed he was set up, but he later acknowledged to the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin that the ads were his.

The scandal forced Stone out of the Dole campaign and, essentially, any high-level mainstream GOP role. But he continued to resurface at odd political moments, gaining even more of a reputation for being involved in dirty tricks. (The Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash called him a “lord of mischief” and the “boastful black prince of Republican sleaze,” and quoted Stone saying that politics for him is “performance art.”)

Stone showed up at the 2000 presidential election recount battle in Florida, claiming (questionably) to have orchestrated protests that helped scuttle the count. He claimed to have had a role in the downfall of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer over a prostitution scandal. He gleefully defended negative campaigning, telling the New Yorker in 2008, “Politics is not about uniting people. It’s about dividing people. And getting your fifty-one per cent.”

Which leads to everything he did with Donald J. Trump.

What is Roger Stone’s history with Donald Trump?

Roger Stone, in March 2017, promoting his book on the 2016 campaign.
Roger Stone in March 2017, promoting his book on the 2016 campaign.
Joe Raedle/Getty

Roger Stone and Donald Trump, who’ve known each other for more than three decades, are a match made in ... well, heaven may not be the right word.

Both grew up in New York. Both have a penchant for conspiracy theories (Stone wrote a book arguing that LBJ was behind JFK’s assassination, and frequently appears on The Alex Jones Show), and for racially offensive and misogynistic language (Stone has tweeted various insults at people including “stupid negro,” “diva bitch,” and “quota hires”).

They’re both outside the GOP establishment. They both have had sex lives that have landed them in the tabloids. They both don’t give a shit about what the “respectable” elites think, or what they get offended by. And they’re both willing to go oh-so-negative against their opponents.

In fact, Stone had been trying to get Trump to run for president for nearly three decades before it actually happened.

Stone met the real estate developer in the mid-1980s, through Roy Cohn, the infamous former aide to Sen. Joe McCarthy who later became Trump’s lawyer. Trump ended up hiring Black, Manafort, and Stone to do lobbying and PR for him, and got to know Stone well.

After Trump released his book The Art of the Deal in 1987, Stone urged him to consider a presidential bid. Trump flew to New Hampshire to give a speech but decided against running in the end.

Donald Trump and Roger Stone, then the director of Trump’s presidential exploratory committee, on October 25, 1999. In a prelude to his possible presidential bid, Trump quit the Republican Party and joined New York’s wing of the Reform Party, setting the stage for a possible presidential nomination battle with Pat Buchanan.
Daniel Hulshizer/AP

Then in 1999, Trump floated a possible campaign again. This time, it would be for the Reform Party, not the Republicans — and Stone would run his exploratory committee. Trump spent a few months viciously attacking his rival for the nomination, Pat Buchanan, as a “Hitler lover,” but ended up not officially running in the end.

The two had their ups and downs in the years to come. (“Roger is a stone-cold loser,” Trump told Toobin for that 2008 New Yorker profile of Stone. “He always tries taking credit for things he never did.”) But in 2011, as Trump mused about a presidential run again, they were on speaking terms again, as Stone “egged” him on to spread conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama’s birthplace, per the New York Times.

So when Trump finally did launch a campaign in June 2015, it was no surprise that Stone was right there by his side, as an official campaign adviser. But he wasn’t there long — Stone bitterly clashed with campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and stepped down in early August 2015. (Stone claimed he quit; Trump claimed he was fired.)

What happened after Stone left the Trump campaign?

Despite his ouster, Stone continued to voice support for Trump’s candidacy. Stone reportedly remained in contact with Trump, at least to some extent, and gave him some advice.

He eventually managed to get important allies installed on the campaign; in early 2016, he recommended that Trump bring on his longtime friend and business partner Paul Manafort. (After Manafort’s hiring was announced, Stone called journalist Matt Labash and sang “Back in the Saddle Again” — and worked tirelessly to boost Manafort at Corey Lewandowski’s expense.) Michael Caputo, another longtime Stone friend and business associate, also joined up with Trump as a communications aide.

Meanwhile, Stone went to work on his own outside operations to help Trump. For one, he wrote a book called The Clintons’ War on Women, arguing that Bill and Hillary Clinton “sexually, physically, and psychologically” abused women “in their scramble for power and wealth.”

Roger Stone speaks with media after meeting with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower on December 6, 2016.
Eduard Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images

In March 2016, Stone was the only named source quoted in a National Enquirer story claiming Trump’s rival Ted Cruz had had multiple affairs, saying, “These stories have been swirling around Cruz for some time. I believe where there is smoke there is fire.” (Cruz responded with fury, saying, “Mr. Stone is a man who has 50 years of dirty tricks behind him. He’s a man for whom a term was coined for copulating with a rodent.”)

Later in the spring, in the midst of chatter that Trump could lose the GOP nomination due to a delegate rebellion, Stone started a group called “Stop the Steal” to prevent that from happening. He threatened to orchestrate “Days of Rage” demonstrations, saying, “We will disclose the hotels and the room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in the steal.” (No effort to block Trump at the convention got off the ground.)

But what seems to have gotten Robert Mueller’s attention is another set of contacts Stone had — involving Russia and the hackings and leaks that plagued leading Democrats in 2016.

Did Roger Stone collude with Russians, hackers, or WikiLeaks?

Well, that’s the question. He says he didn’t — but the specifics of his story keep changing. Here’s what we know.

Stone took a meeting with a Russian calling himself “Henry Greenberg: Stone recently admitted to the Washington Post that in May 2016, he met this “Greenberg” at a restaurant in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida — and that Greenberg offered him damaging information on Hillary Clinton. (The meeting was arranged by Stone’s friend and then-Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo.)

It’s unclear what happened in the meeting, who, if anyone, Greenberg was working with, or how important it is. Stone’s current story is that Greenberg asked him for $2 million in exchange for the information, but he turned him down, saying Trump would be too cheap to pay for it.

But the fact that both Stone and Caputo failed to disclose this meeting to the House Intelligence Committee during sworn testimony last year seems rather suspicious. Stone said in a statement the day of his testimony last year that he had “never had any communication with any Russians or individuals fronting for Russians, in connection with the 2016 presidential election.”

(Both Stone and Caputo told the Post they just “forgot” about this meeting — until Mueller’s team asked Caputo about it in front of a grand jury in May, and revealed they had texts proving that it happened. Then, all of a sudden, they “remembered” it.)

Guccifer 2.0: There is also the question of just what Stone knew about the hacking and leaking of Democratic emails — a criminal act linked to the Russian government, and at the center of Mueller’s investigation. Because both publicly and privately, Stone was fixated on the hacks and leaks, and in contact with two key players involved.

First, there’s “Guccifer 2.0” — the online persona that claimed responsibility for hacking Democrats — that posted some hacked materials online.

Stone penned an August 5 Breitbart article in which he took Guccifer’s story about being a lone hacker who stole the DNC emails at face value and argued Russia probably wasn’t responsible. He also tweeted praise at Guccifer, publicly. After that, though, Stone exchanged a series of Twitter DMs with Guccifer in August and September.

Yet in early in 2017, when journalist William Bastone asked Stone about his contacts with Guccifer, Stone falsely claimed all those contacts were public. Only after Bastone reported on some of the DMs did Stone post what he says is the full exchange, calling it innocuous.

In July 2018, however, Mueller indicted several Russian intelligence officials for crimes related to the hackings, and alleged that the Guccifer identity was created and controlled by a particular unit of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service.

WikiLeaks and Julian Assange: Then there’s Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who posted the two biggest dumps of 2016 hacked material — the DNC emails and John Podesta’s emails.

  • According to a Washington Post source, one associate of Stone’s claims that it was all the way back in the spring 2016 — before any news of hacking or leaks broke — when Stone said he’d learned from Julian Assange that WikiLeaks had obtained emails that would hurt Democrats. (Stone denies this and no proof of this has yet emerged.)
  • On August 4, 2016, about a week after WikiLeaks posted the DNC emails, Stone emailed his longtime associate Sam Nunberg: “I dined with my new pal Julian Assange last nite.” (Stone has since said this was just a joke.)
  • That same day, Stone appeared on the Infowars radio show and said he thought Assange had “proof” of the Clintons’ corruption and would “furnish” that proof “to the American people.” He also mentioned that he spoke with Trump the day before, raising questions of what he might have told Trump. And he suddenly began expressing doubt that Russia provided the DNC information to WikiLeaks — a change in what he had previously been saying, CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski and Christopher Massie have reported.
  • On August 8, Stone outright said he was in contact with the WikiLeaks founder. “I actually have communicated with Assange,” he said during a Florida speech. “I believe the next tranche of his documents pertain to the Clinton Foundation, but there’s no telling what the October surprise may be.”
  • On August 21, Stone tweeted an odd prediction: “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary.” Many would later point to this tweet — which came more than a month before the Podesta email hack became public — and ask whether Stone knew it was coming. (Stone claims he was merely predicting “Podesta’s business dealings would be exposed.”)
  • In October, Stone repeatedly hyped what he said were forthcoming WikiLeaks dumps, calling them “the mother lode” and the “payload,” and tweeting that “Wednesday @Hillary Clinton is done” with the hashtag “WikiLeaks.” Nothing came on that Wednesday, but Assange posted John Podesta’s emails two days later, on October 7.
  • Stone would later claim that all of his communication with WikiLeaks was in fact through an intermediary. However, this turned out not to be true — Twitter DMs between Stone and the WikiLeaks account, from the days after the Podesta leak, later made it into the press. In the messages, Stone lashes out at WikiLeaks’ public claim to have “never communicated” with him. “Ha! The more you ‘correct’ me the more people think you’re lying. Your operation leaks like a sieve. You need to figure out who your friends are,” Stone wrote.

All that is ... a lot. But what exactly it all adds up to isn’t entirely clear.

We know that Stone was in contact to some extent with key players in the hacks and leaks. And we know his denials of any direct contacts with WikiLeaks, and with any Russian operator, are false. But what exactly did he know, and when? What, if anything, did he do?

What do we know about Mueller’s interest in Roger Stone?

Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Trump advisers’ contacts with Russians. He’s investigating the hacks and leaks of Democrats’ emails. And he’s prosecuting Paul Manafort. Stone is linked to all of them to at least some extent, making him a natural person to investigate — indeed, he’s reportedly been under scrutiny in the Russia probe for more than a year.

But a flurry of news stories suggest Mueller has become especially interested in Stone in recent months.

In late February of this year, Sam Nunberg — a protégé of Stone’s and a former Trump aide — received a subpoena asking him for all documents he had related to 10 Trump associates, including Stone.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A few days later, Nunberg made a bizarre set of media appearances in which he claimed he’d defy the subpoena. And repeatedly, he suggested that what he didn’t want to hand over most were his emails with Roger Stone. “They want me to testify against Roger,” Nunberg told CNN. “They want me to say that Roger was going around telling people he was colluding with Julian Assange.” (Nunberg eventually caved.)

In the following months, Mueller began hauling other associates of Stone before the grand jury too.

On May 2, Michael Caputo — Stone’s longtime business associate who’d set up the meeting between Stone and “Henry Greenberg” — testified to the grand jury. In May, news broke that John Kakanis, who’d worked as a driver and accountant for Stone, had been subpoenaed for testimony. On June 1, it was Jason Sullivan, who’s done social media work for Stone, who gave grand jury testimony. In late June, his former aide Andrew Miller said he’d fight Mueller’s subpoena of him in court. Stone has said at least eight of his associates have been subpoenaed or testified.

The timing of this focus on Stone suggests it may have proceeded from former Trump aide Rick Gates striking a plea deal with Mueller in February. Indeed, the day after Caputo’s grand jury testimony, an anonymous source told CNBC that Mueller was focusing intensely on interactions between Gates and Stone. (Stone says he had just one dinner with Gates, in April 2016.)

There’s also the fact that included on a leaked list of questions Mueller’s team told Trump’s lawyers they want to ask Trump is one about Stone: “What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?”

Finally, Mueller’s recent indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officials provides another clear sign of his interest in Stone — because it talks about him (though not by name, and no wrongdoing is alleged). The indictment quotes from the messages with Guccifer that Stone had previously posted, identifying Stone as “a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump.”

Throughout all this, Mueller has conspicuously avoided contacting Stone directly — which is widely believed to be a sign that Stone is a target of the investigation.

Stone has said he thinks this may well be the case, though he asserts that if he’s indicted, it wouldn’t be for anything serious. “It is not inconceivable now that Mr. Mueller and his team may seek to conjure up some extraneous crime pertaining to my business, or maybe not even pertaining to the 2016 election,” he told NBC News.

How has Stone responded to his apparent legal jeopardy?

As one might expect, he isn’t meekly lying in wait.

For one, in a very Roger Stone move, he claimed to CNN on Friday that he simply had no idea whether he’s the unnamed person whose messages with Guccifer are quoted in Mueller’s new indictment — even though he had posted those same messages on his own website last year. (He admitted it was actually him a few hours later.)

Well before that, Stone had put out a story that all his contact with WikiLeaks in 2016 was through an intermediary — radio host Randy Credico. Unfortunately for him, Credico started publicly contradicting this story, telling journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn that Stone was trying to make him “the fall guy.”

Stone responded with fury. Emails he reportedly sent to Credico around April this year, according to reports by Mother Jones, the Wall Street Journal, and Yahoo News, include:

  • “You are a rat. A stoolie. You backstab your friends-run your mouth my lawyers are dying Rip you to shreds”
  • “Give Mueller my regards”
  • “I’m going to take that dog away from you” (Credico has a “therapy dog”)
  • “Everyone says u are wearing a wire for Mueller”
  • “Run your mouth = get sued.”
  • “I am so ready. Let’s get it on. Prepare to die cock sucker.”

Beyond these apparent attempts to intimidate a likely witness against him, Stone has tried to go on offense — by making the case in public that the FBI and Mueller have been trying to set him up.

Roger Stone speaks to the media after appearing before the House Intelligence Committee closed-door hearing on September 26, 2017.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In particular, after Caputo’s testimony to Mueller’s grand jury made it clear the special counsel knew about Stone’s meeting with “Henry Greenberg,” Stone and Caputo went to work trying to spin it as best they can. Caputo used his legal defense fund to pay for an investigation into “Greenberg,” and found information suggesting he’d previously been an FBI informant.

So in June, Stone and Caputo disclosed this meeting for the first time, to the Washington Post — and coupled it with the claim that they now think this was a setup by the FBI. Stone has no evidence that this is the case, and the timeline for it doesn’t really make sense, since the FBI counterintelligence investigation was only opened two months later.

Still, Stone’s apparent goal is to piggyback on the right-wing media controversies like “Spygate,” and on the larger right-wing narrative that the Russia probe is a setup, to change the subject about why he didn’t disclose this meeting until now. “The Special Counsel seems determined to frame me for some bogus offense,” he insisted in a recent statement.

As for Mueller himself, he has not yet weighed in. And until he does, we won’t know what the next act in the Roger Stone saga will be.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.