One of the interesting consequences of the “drip, drip” release of information as political scandals slowly unfold is that political combatants often end up focusing on each new detail rather than placing it in the context of the larger whole. This is understandable, but it can sometimes cause us to miss the forest for the trees. So, on the day of the long-expected Roger Stone indictment, it’s worthwhile to back up just a bit and place the special counsel’s allegations against Stone in proper context.
First, what does the Stone indictment add to the story of Russia, the Trump campaign, and 2016? We already knew from Jerome Corsi’s draft statement of offense that the bumbling team of Corsi and Stone had worked diligently to get advance notice of WikiLeaks document dumps. Now we know (according to the indictment) that “a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information Organization 1 had regarding the Clinton Campaign.”
Who directed the “senior” official (reportedly Steve Bannon) to contact Stone? We don’t know.
Moreover (again, according to the indictment), “on multiple occasions, Stone told senior Trump Campaign officials about materials possessed by Organization 1 and the timing of future releases.” So, here we have a reciprocal relationship — the Trump campaign reached out to Stone for information about WikiLeaks, and Stone communicated back to the campaign.
If you’ll recall, from the inception of suspicions about Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, there have been competing partisan narratives. From parts of the left, the characters in the Trump drama are framed like James Bond villains, shadowy operatives in an international plot to hack an election. From the parts of the right, the FBI and CIA are the Bond villains, hatching their own conspiracy to entrap innocent Trump officials in an effort to take down a democratically elected president. But in November, after Corsi leaked his draft statement to the press, I posited a different theory: The Trump campaign wasn’t a collection of criminal masterminds — would masterminds rely on the likes of Stone and Corsi to conduct international espionage? — but an ad-hoc mix of comically inept crooks and grifters who were seeking to gain any advantage they could and have spent the years since lying to cover their tracks.
The Stone indictment advances my theory considerably. He is not alleged to have established any kind of ongoing, close working relationship with Julian Assange. Instead, he used intermediaries to squeeze out bits and pieces of information from WikiLeaks. He allegedly shared some of that information with the campaign, and then — when the special counsel’s investigation started — appears to have engaged in some of the most inept lying and witness intimidation I’ve ever seen. He denied the existence of documents that he should have known investigators would possess, and his threats to witnesses were almost cartoonish. In one paragraph, the indictment alleges he referred to a plan inspired by the movie Godfather II. In another paragraph, the indictment alleges that he threatened a witness’s dog.
John Wick would like a word.
It would almost be funny if the stakes weren’t so high. A combination of special-counsel indictments, guilty pleas, and reproduced emails has now shown that, despite their insistent, repeated denials of contact with Russians, Trump-campaign officials (including the campaign chair and the candidate’s son and son-in-law) were eager to meet with Russians to obtain damaging information on Hillary Clinton, were asking Roger Stone to connect with WikiLeaks — a reputed Russian asset — for information about its data dumps, and shared polling data with another reputed Russian asset. What’s more, we now know that Trump’s real-estate business continued to discuss a significant development deal in Moscow with Russians (including a Kremlin official) deep into the 2016 campaign.
Lest you think the repeated, criminal lies about many of those events are mere “process crimes,” or that lies to the public don’t matter because they aren’t crimes at all, don’t forget the counterintelligence aspect of this investigation. When a person lies publicly and under oath about contacts with a hostile foreign power — and the hostile foreign power knows that person lied — that provides the foreign power with potential leverage. It doesn’t mean the liar will allow himself to be compromised. It doesn’t mean that the foreign power will try to use its leverage. But it does mean that the lie was more significant than your average political lie.
All that said, now more than ever it’s imperative that Robert Mueller conclude his investigation with all prudent speed. The “drip, drip” process itself is tearing at the fabric of our political culture, and if it continues deep into the 2020 presidential cycle, I shudder to think of its impact on political discourse and national polarization. If at all possible, the Mueller investigation needs to reach its endgame, soon, and let the legal and political chips fall where they may.