From the way some have spoken about Roger Stone’s arrest last week, a casual observer could be mistaken for thinking that the veteran GOP political operative and longtime Trump adviser was the victim of some monumental injustice. “If Roger Stone’s arrest is a sign of things to come, we’ve lost our country,” read the headline of a Sean Hannity op-ed on Fox News’ website. “Say goodbye.” His colleague Andrew Napolitano, a former state judge, called the arrest “the behavior of a police state where the laws are written to help the government achieve its ends.”
Stone’s treatment by federal agents who apprehended him is indeed scandalous -- just not quite in the way that his defenders think.
Last Friday morning, special counsel Robert Mueller’s office unsealed an indictment against Stone that charged him with lying to Congress and witness tampering. At the same time, roughly a dozen FBI agents arrested him at his home in Fort Lauderdale. The agents, clad in body armor and helmets, knocked on Stone’s door shortly before dawn to rouse and apprehend him. Many Americans awoke that morning to footage by a CNN freelancer showing the arrest as it unfolded.
Stone, who is no stranger to hyperbole, played the victim immediately after his initial court appearance. He claimed that the FBI had treated him worse than drug lords or terrorist leaders. “To storm my house with greater force than was used to take down bin Laden or El Chapo or Pablo Escobar, to terrorize my wife and my dogs, is unconscionable,” Stone told reporters. It’s worth noting that U.S. soldiers shot bin Laden in the head during a 2011 raid in Pakistan and dumped his corpse off of an aircraft carrier at sea.
Other conservatives soon joined the chorus, however. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who also chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to FBI Director Chris Wray this week asking for more details about Stone’s arrest. “I am concerned about the manner in which the arrest was effectuated, especially the number of agents involved, the tactics employed, the timing of the arrest, and whether the FBI released details of the arrest and the indictment to the press prior to providing this information to Mr. Stone’s attorneys,” Graham wrote. Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a similar letter.
It’s true that Stone’s arrest was atypical -- in that it ranked pretty low on the spectrum of police militarization. The Washington Post’s Radley Balko, who has more experience covering police use-of-force problems than just about anyone, had a more measured take on what Stone experienced. “A dozen agents w/guns out seems excessive,” he wrote on Twitter. “But it didn’t look like SWAT team. Wasn’t a no-knock. No explosives. No dynamic entry. Maybe not ideal, but far better treatment than your average pot dealer."
Other responses suggest that partisan concerns may be a greater factor here than genuine issues with law enforcement policy. Hannity, a fervent loyalist of President Trump, responded to the arrest with his usual umbrage. Why, he asked, weren’t obvious crooks like Hillary Clinton, former CIA Director John Brennan or former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper facing the same treatment? “We are a democratic republic,” he inveighed. “The Constitution that we cherish so much is the foundation of all law and order in this country. If you don’t apply the laws equally, only going after one group of people because of their political views, and you protect people with other political views, you’ve lost our Constitution. We’ve lost our country.”
Even typically cooler heads on the right spoke up in Stone’s defense. Napolitano, a Fox News legal analyst, is usually a voice of moderation in conservative circles when it comes to the Russia investigation. “No innocent American merits the governmental treatment Stone received,” he wrote in an op-ed on Thursday. “It was the behavior of a police state where the laws are written to help the government achieve its ends, not to guarantee the freedom of the people—and where police break the laws they are sworn to enforce. Regrettably, what happened to Roger Stone could happen to anyone.”
What happened to Roger Stone can indeed happen to anyone. It just rarely happens to people like Roger Stone. Police militarization is a widespread problem in American society. It erodes trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and may therefore have a counterproductive effect on crime rates and police violence. While it may have been overkill to send 12 armed and armored federal agents to arrest the 66-year-old Stone before dawn, it’s certainly not extraordinary under American standards. His experience just happens to be more commonly experienced by communities of color and Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This is something of a theme for Trump-aligned conservatives in recent years: co-opting liberal and libertarian rhetoric about law-enforcement abuses to raise doubts about what appear to be legitimate steps in the Russia investigation. In the summer of 2017, for example, news outlets reported that federal agents carried out a no-knock search warrant during a predawn raid at the home of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. Such warrants are typically used if investigators think the suspect may destroy evidence, and they’re hardly uncommon. John Dowd, one of Trump’s personal lawyers in the Russia investigation, nonetheless told a reporter that the raid amounted to a “gross abuse of the judicial process” and resembled tactics seen “in Russia not America.” (The FBI subsequently denied that a no-knock raid had taken place.)
After federal agents executed a lawful search warrant against former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen last May, conservatives once again saw the specter of tyranny. “We’re supposed to have the rule of law,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned on Fox News. “It ain’t the rule of law when they kick in your door at three in the morning and you’re faced with armed men and you have had no reason to be told you’re going to have that kind of treatment. That’s Stalin. That’s the Gestapo in Germany. That shouldn’t be the American FBI.” The Anti-Defamation League condemned his comparison to the Nazi regime.
Perhaps the longest-running line of criticism focused on the Justice Department’s use of a FISA warrant against Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy aide with multiple ties to Russian figures, during the 2016 campaign. House Republicans and conservative media outlets spent months focusing on purported surveillance abuses, casting Page’s treatment as part of a wider “deep state” plot to undermine Trump’s campaign and presidency. The grievance campaign became a victim of its own success when House Republicans released a partially redacted memo on the warrant that undercut Trump’s own claims about his campaign and Russia.
The goal here ultimately is to discredit the Russia investigation, to cast it as thuggish, partisan and illegitimate. Drawing upon good-faith concerns about surveillance abuses, prosecutorial overreach, and law enforcement militarization is a clever way to go about this. But it also speaks volumes about those who invoke it. The question isn’t really why they’re concerned about such heavy-handed tactics against one of Trump’s ex-confidantes. It’s why they aren’t expressing similar concerns when it happens to anyone else.