Federal prosecutors have placed Donald Trump at the centre of the trial of his longtime friend and associate, Roger Stone, who is accused of lying to Congress about his efforts to contact WikiLeaks during the 2016 election.
Aaron Zelinsky, a Department of Justice prosecutor who worked on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, told the jury at the start of Mr Stone’s trial on Wednesday that the Republican political operative had lied to protect Mr Trump.
“Roger Stone lied to the House intelligence committee because the truth looked bad. The truth looked bad for the Trump campaign, and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump,” Mr Zelinsky said in his opening statement.
The trial, which is expected to last more than two weeks, concerns Mr Stone’s attempted contacts with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, in 2016 when the website was releasing emails that Russian hackers had stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The case is set to shine new light on the Trump campaign’s activities during the election and attempts to capitalise on Russia’s unprecedented interference in US politics. Steve Bannon, who was chief executive of Mr Trump’s campaign and later his chief political strategist in the White House, is set to testify.
Mr Stone, 67, entered the Washington federal courtroom on Wednesday morning holding his wife’s hand, and followed by a man holding a red Bible and dressed as a priest. He has pleaded not guilty to the seven counts of obstruction, false statements and witness tampering he was charged with in January.
His indictment was the last case that Mr Mueller brought before shutting up shop on his investigation, without establishing a criminal conspiracy between Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign and the Russian government. Prosecutors have not alleged that the underlying conduct about which Mr Stone is accused of lying was illegal.
Bruce Rogow, one of Mr Stone’s attorneys, told the jury on Wednesday that his client’s state of mind was key to the case. “His state of mind was to talk to the committee without any intention of lying,” he said.
Mr Rogow denied that Mr Stone had any intermediary with Wikileaks, and argued that his communications with the Trump campaign merely reflected his desire to elect Mr Trump. “We think the evidence will show that there was no corrupt intent in whatever was said or done by Mr Stone,” he said.
Mr Zelinsky on Wednesday previewed the government’s case, claiming that Mr Stone told five types of lies to the House intelligence committee as it investigated Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
They included alleged lies about Mr Stone’s intermediaries with WikiLeaks; having sent emails in which he discussed Mr Assange; making requests of his intermediaries; having records of his communications with his intermediaries; and his contacts with the Trump campaign.
Mr Zelinsky showed the court emails from the summer of 2016 between Mr Stone and members of the Trump campaign such as Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager who is now in jail, and Mr Bannon.
In one to Mr Manafort, Mr Stone said he had an idea “to save Trump’s ass”. In another to Mr Bannon, Mr Stone warned, “I do know how to win this, but it ain’t pretty.” Mr Zelinsky suggested the emails were linked to Mr Stone’s efforts to contact Wikileaks.
Mr Stone also exchanged messages with Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater who was close to the Trump campaign, saying in one message in early October that “the payload is still coming”. Days later, WikiLeaks released emails stolen from Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman.
Mr Zelinsky referenced calls between Mr Stone and Mr Trump, admitting that the government did not know the content of the calls but noting that they came at times close to Mr Stone’s communications with Jerome Corsi, one of his alleged intermediaries with WikiLeaks.
“Roger Stone could easily have told the truth,” said Mr Zelinsky. Instead, he lied, Mr Zelinsky claimed, because the truth “wasn’t pretty, it would look bad”.