Criminal indictments are typically written in the dry, terse active voice of American legalese. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal indictment of Roger Stone, who was arrested by FBI agents in the wee hours on Friday, is no different -- with one notable exception.
According to the 24-page court filing, the longtime Trump adviser “made multiple false statements” to Congress as it investigated Russian interference during the 2016 election. Stone “falsely denied possessing records” relevant to that inquiry, the indictment alleges, and “attempted to persuade a witness to provide false testimony” to cover his own tracks. Then, four pages in, Mueller uncharacteristically switches to the passive voice.
“After the July 22, 2016 release of stolen DNC emails by Organization 1,” the indictment reads, “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.” (Organization 1 refers to WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy organization that published tranches of Clinton campaign emails stolen by Russian hackers during the 2016 election.)
It’s not clear which “senior Trump campaign official” contacted Stone about WikiLeaks. What is clear, at least from Mueller’s perspective, is that the official didn’t contact Stone of their own volition; he or she “was directed” by someone higher in the campaign food chain to pursue it. That small turn of phrase carries serious implications for President Donald Trump and his inner circle. It suggests that not only did Trump campaign officials try to coordinate with WikiLeaks through Stone, but that the effort came from the campaign’s highest ranks.
The Justice Department, multiple congressional committees and many of the nation’s major news outlets have spent the past two years probing whether the Trump campaign illegally conspired with the Russian government during the 2016 election. I’ve argued before that what they’ve uncovered so far amounts to “soft collusion” at minimum -- an implicit understanding between Trump Tower and the Kremlin to damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy that didn’t quite amount to an explicit quid pro quo. Friday’s indictment of Stone, and that curious use of the passive voice by Mueller, do not prove “hard collusion,” of course. But it moves the narrative one step closer in that direction.
Stone, a longtime Republican political operative, is the first person indicted by Mueller since last year’s midterm elections. Though there has been widespread speculation that the special counsel’s investigation is wrapping up, the new charges confirm his work will continue well into 2019. It also brings the investigation deeper into the president’s inner circle: Stone worked briefly for the Trump campaign in the summer of 2015, then acted as an informal political adviser of sorts to Trump for the rest of the election. What’s more, it sheds new light on other Trump campaign officials’ eagerness for damaging material on Hillary Clinton, no matter how dubious its provenance.
The indictment itself comes as no surprise. Much of what Mueller describes in Friday’s court filing was already public knowledge, and most observers expected that Stone would face some kind of charges since last summer. Stone had publicly claimed in August 2016 that he had inside knowledge of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s future disclosures after Assange published emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee.
Stone’s contentious relationship with Randy Credico, a New York radio host who appears to be the person described as “Person 2” in the indictment, also became public knowledge last year. Credico had previously interviewed Assange; Mueller’s indictment says that Stone described Credico as an “intermediary” between himself and the WikiLeaks founder. While Congress and federal investigators dug into the circumstances surrounding Russian election meddling in 2016, Stone allegedly began pressuring and threatening Credico to lie about what had transpired.
Stone, according to the indictment, told Credico before his House Intelligence Committee testimony that he should pull a “Frank Pentangeli,” referring to a fictional mafioso in the second "Godfather" film who commits perjury before a congressional committee to refute allegations that the Corleone family runs a nationwide crime syndicate. Last April, Stone’s efforts to pressure Credico took on a more violent overtone. “On or about April 9, 2018, Stone wrote in an email to (Credico), ‘You are a rat. A stoolie. You backstab your friends-run your mouth my lawyers are dying Rip you to shreds,’” the indictment states.”
Stone appeared before a judge on Friday morning in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His bond was set at $250,000, and he will likely be arraigned in D.C. court next week. It’s not yet known whether he will plead guilty to the seven charges against him, which include obstruction of Congress, witness tampering, and five counts of making false statements. Stone, who is 66 years old, may feel pressured to accept a plea deal rather than face the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence if he goes to trial. He wouldn’t be the only Trump associate who’s turned state’s witness over the past two years: Longtime legal fixer Michael Cohen, former national security advisor Michael Flynn and deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates have all cooperated with Mueller.
Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, quickly tried to distance Stone’s arrest from the president himself. “This has nothing to do with the president and certainly nothing to do with the White House,” she told CNN in a Friday morning interview. “This is something that has to do solely with that individual, not something that affects us in this building.” That may be wishful thinking on her part. The special counsel’s latest move only deepens the sense that Trump’s presidency is increasingly in danger.