WASHINGTON — A former chairman of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 campaign painted a portrait on Friday of a desperate organization lagging far behind Hillary Clinton and ready to try any method, including “dirty tricks,” to win.
Testifying in the criminal trial of Roger J. Stone Jr., the onetime campaign chief Stephen K. Bannon said he spoke with Mr. Stone as soon as he assumed command of the team because Mr. Stone was a master of “the tougher side of politics” and Mr. Trump trailed Mrs. Clinton by as much as 16 points less than three months before the election.
“When you are this far behind, you try to use every tool in the toolbox,” Mr. Bannon testified, including “opposition research and you know, dirty tricks,” to make up ground.
Mr. Bannon, who served as a senior White House adviser for six months after Mr. Trump was elected, testified at the end of the first week of Mr. Stone’s trial in Federal District Court in Washington on seven felony charges. A Republican political operative and 40-year friend of President Trump, Mr. Stone is charged with lying to the House Intelligence Committee in 2017 and trying to block the testimony of another witness, Randy Credico, to cover up his falsehoods.
At that time, the House committee was investigating how Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, including the role of WikiLeaks. The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, had also mounted a parallel criminal inquiry into Russia’s theft of tens of thousands of emails from the Democratic computers and transfer of them to WikiLeaks, which released them at critical points during the campaign.
The Stone trial has focused new attention on the Trump campaign’s efforts to profit from Russia’s election sabotage at a time when Mr. Trump faces mounting peril from an impeachment inquiry into whether he pressured another foreign government, that of Ukraine, for help with his 2020 re-election campaign.
Mr. Bannon, who testified for less than half an hour, assumed charge of the Trump campaign in mid-August, after Paul Manafort was forced to resign amid a financial scandal that eventually ended in a seven-and-a-half-year prison term. Mr. Stone is the sixth Trump associate to face criminal charges as a result of Mr. Mueller’s investigation. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 20 years.
The day after Mr. Bannon took over the campaign, he received an email from Mr. Stone. “Trump can still win — but time is running out,” he wrote. “I do know how to win this but it ain’t pretty.”
For weeks beforehand, Mr. Bannon said, Mr. Stone had implied that he had a relationship with WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange that could benefit Mr. Trump.
“He was the access point to Julian Assange,” Mr. Bannon said, who was dressed in black, spoke in clipped tones and frowned almost continually. “It was natural that I would reach out to him.”
In fact, Mr. Stone, a former campaign adviser, had no real ties to WikiLeaks, although he repeatedly tried to dispatch intermediaries to obtain the stolen emails or information about when they would be released.
He is charged with lying to congressional investigators about the identity of his go-between, the results of his efforts and his communications with Trump campaign officials. Prosecutors have said Mr. Stone hid hundreds of text messages and emails from the House committee because the truth would have embarrassed Mr. Trump and the campaign.
Mr. Credico, perhaps the most important witness in the prosecutors’ case, testified Friday that Mr. Stone pressured him not to cooperate with congressional investigators because his account of events would have exposed Mr. Stone’s lies. When he wavered, he said, Mr. Stone threatened him, his friend and his dog.
“You are a rat, a stoolie. You backstab your friends,” Mr. Stone emailed Mr. Credico in April 2018. “My lawyers are dying to rip you to shreds. I am going to take that dog away from you.”
Mr. Stone told the House committee that in summer 2016, Mr. Credico had confirmed for him that WikiLeaks possessed Mrs. Clinton’s emails. But Mr. Credico testified that although he is a close friend of Margaret Ratner Kunstler, a lawyer who provided legal counsel to Mr. Assange, he never provided information from WikiLeaks to Mr. Stone.
He said that he passed on one request to Mrs. Kunstler from Mr. Stone, asking for specific emails involving Mrs. Clinton, but in September, not earlier that summer. Both he and Mrs. Kunstler testified that she never answered.
Mrs. Kunstler said while she helped Mr. Credico land an interview that August with Mr. Assange for his radio show, she was annoyed by the request from Mr. Stone and ignored it.
Now in its fourth day, the trial has largely revolved around the tortured relationship between Mr. Stone and Mr. Credico, a comedian and radio personality with a history of alcohol abuse.
Complicating the prosecution’s case, both men appear to have repeatedly lied to and about each other. And both appear to have exaggerated their connections with WikiLeaks, either privately or publicly.
Mr. Credico testified that many of his claims regarding WikiLeaks amounted to “braggadocio” and that he repeatedly overstated his access to Mr. Assange partly as a way to “one-up” Mr. Stone.
He said he was distressed that Mr. Stone had falsely identified him as his intermediary partly because he “did not want to be stuck as the guy who helped Trump win the election.”
At the same time, he said, he feared that if he contradicted Mr. Stone’s account to congressional investigators, Mr. Stone, a well-known political commentator and frequent guest on news shows, would retaliate. At one point, he reassured Mr. Stone that he did not believe that he had, in fact, lied to the committee.
“I didn’t want to be bombarded by a bunch of negative stories and nasty text messages and emails. I didn’t want him to get upset. I didn’t want to be a victim of some kind smear job,” Mr. Credico said.
He said he also wanted to protect Mrs. Kunstler. After Mr. Credico accused Mr. Stone in a May 2018 email of misleading investigators, Mr. Stone replied: “Keep running your mouth and I’ll file a bar complaint against your friend Margaret.”
Mr. Credico recounted other instances in which he said Mr. Stone had caused him anguish, including publicly blaming him for an abusive, middle-of-the-night phone call in 2007 that Mr. Stone had made to the 83-year-old father of Eliot Spitzer, then the Democratic governor of New York. Mr. Stone falsely accused Mr. Credico, a talented impressionist, of impersonating him on the call.
He testified that Mr. Stone was not the only person who urged him to assert his right under the Fifth Amendment not to incriminate himself, to the House committee. But when he leaned toward telling the truth, he said, Mr. Stone insisted that no one would believe Mr. Credico over him.
“Do a Frank Pentangeli,” Mr. Stone texted him, in one of many references he made to a character in the movie “The Godfather: Part II” who gave false testimony during a Senate hearing on organized crime. Mr. Credico ultimately refused to testify before the committee.
Mr. Stone wanted him to fend off Mr. Mueller’s team of prosecutors as well, Mr. Credico said. But by that time, he said, he had decided he would no longer serve as Mr. Stone’s “patsy.”
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