Call it the Cliff Notes version of the Mueller report.
That’s what a new panel of Washington, D.C., jurors heard Wednesday morning as federal prosecutors delivered a tight synopsis of how Roger Stone came to be a defendant in the last indictment to come from the special counsel’s office.
It was a powerful moment delivered exclusively to a courtroom audience. Anyone who’s been following Robert Mueller’s work closely would recognize all the pieces of the story. But to the 12 jurors who might be coming in cold, it was a stark and concise opening narrative explaining how the colorful characters in Trumpworld gossiped and plotted around Russia’s digital thefts of Democratic emails during the 2016 election — and the role Stone played in that story.
The longtime Donald Trump associate is facing charges that he lied to congressional investigators trying themselves to untangle the complex web of Russia’s election meddling. Prosecutors say Stone also tampered with a witness in that probe.
For their part, Stone’s attorneys tried to tell the story of a fabulist who walked into the House Intelligence Committee not fully realizing what they wanted to ask him about. If Stone wasn’t forthcoming or overstated his knowledge, they argued, it was not intentional or malicious, and perhaps just for show.
Here are POLITICO’s five takeaways from the first major day of the trial.
Trump takes it hard
If Trump thought he was off the hook after Mueller closed up shop in May, well, Wednesday was a rude awakening.
As the case against Stone kicked off, ex-Mueller prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky took the baton and seemed to relish the opportunity to weave the president’s name into the prosecution’s narrative on as many occasions as possible.
Less than two minutes into his opening statement, Zelinsky told jurors Trump was a “longtime friend and associate” of Stone.
While prosecutors could’ve portrayed Stone as a freelancer on a lark that might help his ally, Zelinsky instead suggested that Stone was wired to the candidate himself — and at the highest levels of the Trump campaign, “regularly” providing updates on his activities to senior campaign staffers Paul Manafort and Steve Bannon.
Zelinsky never quite accused Trump of directing Stone to lie — the prosecutor said he did not know precisely what the two men said to each other in a series of phone calls that summer. But the implication was that Stone lied to Congress on Trump’s behalf.
“Roger Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committees because the truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump,” Zelinksky said.
Other aspects of the testimony could also anger Trump. One exhibit introduced near the outset of Stone’s trial Wednesday appeared to be a redacted list of phone calls made from Trump’s home in New York City. The fact that investigators were rummaging through details of the president’s personal phone calls seems like the kind of thing that could get the president tweeting.
The trial will be rated R
Stone is known for his brash style and crass language. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that his trial is already full of expletives and hissed threats.
The curse words came quickly as the government prosecutors started making their case, quoting extensively from Stone’s text messages and emails.
There was this Aug. 16, 2016, email Stone sent to Bannon about the prospect of more damaging documents released about the Clinton campaign, which Zelinsky read aloud in court: “I have an idea….to save Trump’s ass.”
There was also this Oct. 3, 2016, text message exchange that an FBI agent on the witness stand helped narrate, illustrating Stone’s attempt to calm down Randy Credico, the therapy dog-toting liberal talk show host who thought Stone was using him to advance a false narrative.
“No one is using your name stop being an asshole,” Stone wrote in one message. Later on in the same exchange, Credico replied with a reference to a character from the Godfather movies, calling Hillary Clinton “a scary serious and dangerous person who will kill without conscious the same way Luca Brasi did.”
“Don’t be a pussy- the higher our profile- the safer u will be,” Stone replied.
Jurors also got treated to an f-bomb. That came when Zelinsky read aloud a text message exchange where Stone was offering Credico advice about how to handle a request to speak with Mueller’s prosecutors.
“Tell him to go fuck himself,” Stone said of the special counsel.
Later, Stone attorney Bruce Rogow explained to the jurors that while they may indeed be hearing some “odious” language in messages between his client and Credico, it’s just part of their “strange relationship.”
“This is the way these two men talked to one another,” he said.
Stone’s many media hits are all now evidence
Stone was one of the most familiar characters to mainstream journalists, on the lecture circuit and in the far-right mediasphere during the 2016 campaign.
Now some of those conversations and appearances are resurfacing as evidence in his own trial.
Prosecutors played several short video clips of Stone to back up their claims that he frequently discussed WikiLeaks and his efforts to learn more about what the activist site had on the Democrats.
Jurors saw Stone at his Aug. 8, 2016, appearance before a local South Florida GOP group where he boasted, “I actually have communicated with Assange. I believe the next tranche of his documents pertain to the Clinton Foundation but there’s no telling what the October surprise may be.”
They saw Stone speaking eight days later to Infowars host Alex Jones about his “backchannel communications” with Assange and the “political dynamite” that would soon be delivered against Clinton.
And then they saw a clip from Stone’s Aug. 18 interview with C-SPAN where Stone explained he was in touch with WikiLeaks “through an intermediary — someone who is a mutual friend.”
Prosecutors were using Stone’s own words to back up their case that he misled lawmakers a year later when he insisted that his intermediary was Credico. In fact, Stone at that point had actually been communicating about Assange with conspiracy theorist and author Jerome Corsi.
Stone’s defense: It was all a show
When your client is on trial for lying, pronouncing him to be a rather profligate liar is, to say the least, an unconventional approach.
Yet, that’s exactly what Stone’s defense team offered Wednesday as his lawyers argued that their client repeatedly exaggerated his knowledge about the content and timing of forthcoming WikiLeaks releases.
“It’s made-up stuff,” Rogow told jurors. “Mr. Stone said those things. He was playing others.”
Stone also contended that what prosecutors described as threats leveled at Credico were not meant literally but as part of crude banter exchanged by two men hailing from opposite ends of the political spectrum. (Neither side mentioned what may be Stone’s most hostile email to Credico, quoted in Stone’s indictment as: “Prepare to die [expletive.]”)
“It is a strange relationship,” conceded the mild-mannered Rogow, whose beard, bow-tie and glasses give him a professorial appearance far from that of his brash client. The defense lawyer said of the messages the pair traded: “They’re profane. They’re rude. … They’re not easy to read, but they’re not evidence of a crime.”
Rogow surprised some courtroom observers by not arguing that forgetfulness or oversight was the cause of Stone’s failure to disclose numerous texts and emails related to his Assange outreach efforts. Instead, the defense attorney insisted that Stone viewed his interview by the House Intelligence Committee as focused on Russia and not WikiLeaks or Assange, despite the fact that Stone was asked directly whether he had any emails or text messages on that topic and said he did not.
“The fact that this was a Russia investigation colored all of his answers,” said Rogow, who also claimed Stone had tried to be forthcoming with Congress. “He goes into this bare naked.”
It’s been widely anticipated that Stone would take the stand in his own defense, but Rogow’s approach Wednesday seemed to leave the door open to the self-described “dirty trickster” not doing so. A defense focused on the announced scope of the House investigation and on Stone’s penchant for provocative boasts might be feasible without testimony from the defendant.
Meet the new Judge Ellis
Close Mueller watchers won’t soon forget U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III, whose gruff manner and blunt orders made for a colorful month as he presided over Manafort’s trial last summer in Alexandria, Va.
Now it’s time to get to know Judge Amy Berman Jackson, a 2011 Obama appointee at the center of the Stone trial.
Jackson is no stranger to the special counsel probe. She’s been the judge on more cases from the Russia investigation than anyone else on the federal bench. She had the initial Mueller case against Manafort and grabbed headlines by ordering his bail revoked after he was charged with witness tampering. (Her Manafort case never went to trial because of a plea deal the Trump campaign chairman cut.)
Jackson also oversaw the cases against Trump campaign vice chairman Rick Gates and Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch attorney whose 30-day jail sentence made him the first person to go to prison in the Mueller probe. And she spared a D.C. lobbyist, Sam Patten, from serving jail time after he got ensnared on a foreign-lobbying charge related to the Mueller investigation.
So far in the Stone trial, Jackson hasn’t delivered any of the sharp reprimands to counsel that Ellis was known to dish out, though she clearly is on alert for anything she considers problematic. During Tuesday’s jury selection proceedings, Jackson warned those in the courtroom against audible or visible reactions. She said she’d seen some activity of that sort Tuesday, but she didn’t elaborate.
Jackson has also displayed her sense of humor. She warned jurors not to make or read posts about the case on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook “or anything that’s been invented that I haven’t heard of yet.”
Culinary themes often seem to prod judges to humor, or attempts at it. Jackson on Wednesday made her trademark quip about the low-expectations breakfast the court offers to jurors.
“We can’t promise you an omelet maker, but we will have fruit. We will have pastries.”
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