Hours after CNN broadcast footage of longtime Donald Trump confidant Roger Stone being arrested by FBI agents, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders went on the cable network — a frequent target of Trump’s abuse — to try to distance the president from Stone. Her efforts didn’t go well.
Sanders began by making a case that Stone’s arrest on charges of obstruction of justice, making false statements, and witness tampering related to his campaign contacts with WikiLeaks — an organization Trump’s administration has accused of serving as a cutout for the Kremlin — actually has nothing to do with Trump.
“This has nothing to do with the president and certainly nothing to do with the White House,” Sanders said. “This is something that has to do solely with that individual, not something that affects us in this building.”
.@JohnBerman: “Did the President direct someone to contact Roger Stone about stolen emails?”@PressSec: “The specific charges that have been brought against Mr. Stone don’t have anything to do with the President.”— New Day (@NewDay) January 25, 2019
Berman: “We don’t know that, though.” https://t.co/RkK5V8tHdD pic.twitter.com/VXP8ciHloK
But as Vox’s Andrew Prokop detailed in his explainer about Stone’s indictment, the indictment alleges that on July 22, 2016 — shortly after WikiLeaks published emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee — an unnamed “senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information” WikiLeaks “had regarding the Clinton Campaign.”
The indictment doesn’t specify who that official is. Sanders refused to answer a question about if it could be Trump. But the stolen emails published by WikiLeaks formed one of Trump’s central themes during the crucial closing weeks before the 2016 campaign.
“Does that mean CNN is guilty of collusion?”
Later, Sanders attempted to deflect from Stone’s indictment by suggesting that CNN is just as guilty of collusion as the Trump campaign because it reported on stolen emails published by WikiLeaks.
“Outlets just like yours — CNN — spent significant time not only looking for information from WikiLeaks but also reporting on it,” she said. “Does that mean CNN is guilty of collusion?”
But as law professor Jennifer Taub pointed out, Sanders’s suggestion that CNN colluded is a false equivalency, because media outlets didn’t conspire with WikiLeaks about stolen emails, nor did they lie to Congress about them — as Stone is alleged to have done.
Nope. @CNN did not lie to Congress and did not work with WikiLeaks as part of a conspiracy to stage the release of stolen emails and documents and did not act deceptively to defraud the United States.— Jennifer Taub (@jentaub) January 25, 2019
Others noted that Sanders’s talking point is a bit like alleging someone who bought a stolen car is just as guilty of wrongdoing as the person who stole it.
Sanders ended up trying to dramatically move the goalposts about what the Mueller investigation is about, claiming “the question and the big thing that the Mueller investigation is supposed to center on is whether the president in some outrageous way colluded with Russia. And the answer to that is no.”
“That’s not true. The special counsel was directed to find out whether the Trump campaign had any contact or collusion with the Russians,” @JohnBerman says to @PressSec Sarah Sanders about the Mueller probe and President Trump. https://t.co/RkK5V8tHdD pic.twitter.com/vm26JjMB1X— New Day (@NewDay) January 25, 2019
Mueller was tasked with investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russia, and other matters that arise directly from that investigation. Stone is the sixth Trump associate the special counsel has charged with crimes.
During a CNN interview last week, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, hinted that team Trump’s fallback position may end up being that while some members of Trump’s campaign were involved in collusion, Trump himself wasn’t. But it will be difficult to totally distance the president from activities that were aimed — successfully — at helping him win office by damaging Hillary Clinton.
And while Sanders tried to distance Trump from Stone, just hours before his arrest, Stone posted a photo on Instagram meant to highlight his closeness with Trump.
Some interpreted Stone’s Instagram post as angling for a potential presidential pardon. Last month, Trump commended Stone for vowing that he’d never testify against him.
“I will never testify against Trump.” This statement was recently made by Roger Stone, essentially stating that he will not be forced by a rogue and out of control prosecutor to make up lies and stories about “President Trump.” Nice to know that some people still have “guts!”— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 3, 2018
In an interview with the Washington Post, Giuliani downplayed the severity of the crimes Stone is charged with, and said “the president is safe here.”
Giuliani added, “They do have some alleged false statements and I don’t want to minimize that. That’s not right, you shouldn’t do that. But there is no evidence of anything else but false statements. The president is safe here."— Robert Costa (@costareports) January 25, 2019
Another member of Trump’s legal team, Jay Sekulow, struck a similar note.
NEW: Statement from Jay Sekulow, counsel to President Trump: "The indictment today does not allege Russian collusion by Roger Stone or anyone else. Rather, the indictment focuses on alleged false statements made to Congress." h/t @kwelkernbc— Geoff Bennett (@GeoffRBennett) January 25, 2019
One thing still left unexplained, however, is why Stone and other former Trump officials like Michael Flynn decided to make false statements about their campaign contacts with Russia and organizations allegedly working to further the Kremlin’s ends.