President Donald Trump’s associate Roger Stone repeatedly lied to Congress about contacts with WikiLeaks because the “truth looked bad” for Trump and his 2016 campaign, according to federal prosecutors.
Stone is on trial in Washington for charges that include lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing justice in a case that stems from former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He has denied all wrongdoing.
In his opening statement, prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky charged that Stone lied because the “truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump.” Zelinsky said that Stone told five categories of lies to the House Intelligence Committee including about requests to get emails from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
The case, Zelinsky said, is not about who hacked the Democratic National Committee server or whether Stone had contacts with Russia, but rather about his false testimony and efforts to obstruct the investigation.
The Justice Department alleged Wednesday — the second day of Stone’s trial — that he “repeatedly lied under oath” and then sought to “cover up” his deception by tampering with a witness in a forceful opening statement.
Details about Stone gathered by Mueller as he investigated Russian interference in the election and the Trump campaign’s receptiveness to it have been protected from the public with the trial pending. But those details began to trickle out in the trial’s first day, with prosecutors showing six phone calls between Trump and Stone’s phones on dates when major news about the hack of the Democrats broke.
Zelinsky used his opening statement on Wednesday to link Stone to Trump by highlighting two phone calls in 2016.
The first call came in June 2016, days after Assange announced he had materials related to Hillary Clinton and was planning to release them publicly and the day the DNC announced its servers had been hacked by Russian actors, alleged the prosecutor.
“Roger made a phone call,” said Zelinsky, adding that the contents of the call were unknown, but it went to his “longtime friend and associate” then-candidate Trump.
The second call came on July 31, 2016. Again, the contents of the call were unknown, but it lasted for about 10 minutes.
About an hour after the call, Stone sent an email to conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi about the “friend in the embassy,” a reference to Assange, said the prosecutor.
Although the prosecutor said, “this case is not about politics,” politics was front and center, with the rehashed memories from the 2016 election and Russian interference.
Zelinsky told the jury that this case was about the lies Stone told Congress and the threats he made to a potential witness to Congress, Randy Credico.
The prosecutor also said Wednesday that former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is expected to testify against Stone in the trial, and that he also plans to call Rick Gates, another former top aide to Trump’s 2016 campaign, to testify at the trial.
Testimony from Bannon and Gates — both key witnesses in Mueller’s investigation — could bring out new details about what Mueller found regarding the Trump campaign’s contacts in 2016. Prosecutors allege that Stone regularly updated people inside the Trump campaign at the senior levels about information he had on WikiLeaks including Bannon, then the campaign CEO.
Stone defense team says Wikileaks link is ‘made up stuff’
Stone’s defense team, in its first words of their opening statement, says they will attempt to undercut how prosecutors said they’d prove that Stone was motivated by politics and protecting Trump.
“What isn’t there for you to see is Mr. Stone’s state of mind,” defense attorney Bruce Rogow told the jury Wednesday.
“Of course he has known Trump for years, so there’s nothing illegal” about talking to Trump, he said.
Rogow denied that Stone used an intermediary to attempt to get to Assange about hacked information WikiLeaks had in 2016. The alleged intermediaries, like Credico and Corsi, were playing Stone, and Stone was playing them, he posited.
“It’s made up stuff,” Rogow said.
A major question that has hung over the Stone trial has been whether Stone or his associates ever actually reached WikiLeaks in 2016 or learned what stolen documents the organization might release that could help then-candidate Trump. Prosecutors have hinted in various court filings that they believed Stone was in touch with WikiLeaks.
At one point, Stone was under investigation for potential hacking, but was not charged with that crime.
“He did brag about his ability to try to find out about what was going on, but he had no intermediary,” the defense attorney told the jury.
What Stone knew about WikiLeaks, he had learned from publicly available information, Rogow said.
Questions over Stone’s motivations in 2016 and whether he actually dispatched an associate to attempt to reach WikiLeaks’ Assange will be key to prosecutors’ case as they attempt to prove Stone lied to Congress.
Rogow also told that jury that Stone wanted to testify to Congress — where he allegedly lied — and had gone into the interview thinking the House Committee would be focused on Russia and not WikiLeaks or Assange.
“We are not here to try Russian collusion,” Rogow added.
Stone’s trial could take two weeks or more, partly because of the amount of evidence. Stone was arrested last January in an unexpected predawn raid at his home in Florida, caught exclusively on camera by CNN.