Below is my column in USA Today on the Roger Stone indictment. I have been frankly astonished by the coverage, which has focused on simply the fact that he was charged as opposed to what he was charged with. Once again, the indictment’s significance has been uniformly over-played with little objective analysis of the specific counts themselves. From any objective perspective it is underwhelming in both the underlying conduct and the scope of the allegations.
Here is the column:
The arrest of Roger Stone by Special Counsel Robert Mueller could not have been more dramatically presented. The pre-dawn raid of Stone’s house by a contingent of heavily armed, body-armored agents could easily have fit the arrest of El Chapo rather than an elderly crank with a Nixon fetish.
Despite the breathless media accounts, the actual indictment of Stone is most notable for what it does not include. This was supposed to be the long-rumored linchpin to Russian collusion: The Russians fed information to Wikileaks which fed the information to Stone who fed the information to the Trump campaign.
The raid on Stone’s home clearly made for great television, but the Stone indictment hardly makes for a great collusion case. Let’s be honest. After more than a year of investigation, Mueller nailed a gadfly on false statements, witness tampering and obstruction rather than illegal collusion with Russia.
That’s what has been happening all along. Mueller has almost exclusively charged non-Russian defendants with either false statements or other process crimes.
Maybe Mueller has more evidence
This does not mean that Mueller cannot reveal a wealth of evidence of collusion in the final scene like some Agatha Christie novel. Yet, coverage has been saturated with speculation on possible collusion angles without observing that little evidence has been raised in numerous and lengthy indictments since July 2017.
This is not to say that Mueller was wrong to pursue and ultimately indict Stone. There was ample reason why Mueller targeted Stone initially. After all, Stone suggested to others that he was the conduit of hacked information from Wikileaks but he later insisted that he was not actually speaking to Julian Assange and that he had no direct knowledge that Russians were responsible for the Democratic hacks.
Mueller had every reason to pursue Stone, but it quickly became evident that Stone is a clown-like figure who reveled in the attention of scandal. He was someone who publicly admitted to being a trickster and still admires Richard Nixon (whose image in tattooed on his back).
Moreover, some of these charges are obviously well-founded. Stone said that he did not write to key individuals. He did. He allegedly spoke directly to a potential witness and pressured him to change his account. Like Paul Manafort’s contacting potential witnesses through his monitored phone (while under house arrest), stupidity alone might justify a prison stint.
Mueller however seems to have a strikingly inconsistent approach to these targets. With some targets, Mueller followed the common practice of allowing them to surrender. For Manafort and and Stone, Mueller carried out heavy-handed raids. With Michael Cohen, Mueller matter-of-factly in a footnote noted that he made various false statements but was allowed to simply correct them.With Stonethe allegedly false statements were all related to part of his congressional testimony regarding the meaning of prior public statements and past written communications with Wikileaks.
Sensational style, not criminal intent
In some ways, the Stone prosecution could highlight an element of the defense that could used by Trump himself. Many of the most sinister statements by Stone are consistent with this sensational style of speech and there is a question of intent.
Stone for example told one witness to “Stonewall it. Plead the fifth. Anything to save the plan’ . . . Richard Nixon.” The Special Counsel also recounts how Stone told a “You are a rat. A stoolie. You backstab your friends-run your mouth my lawyers are dying Rip you to shreds.” He also allegedly threatened the man’s dog and said that he would “take that dog away from you.” Hardly nice, but Stone is likely to point out that he spoke publicly in the same fashion and he is known for such colorful language.
In the end, however, Stone could have talked himself into an indictment just as Trump could well tweet himself into an impeachment.
The main issue however remains the lack of objectivity of the coverage of the indictment. Stone has featured prominently in theories seeking “smoking gun” evidence of collusion. There is nothing smoking in this indictment. There is no suggestion of involvement or knowledge by Stone in the hacking. Stone has suggested that he was a conduit of hacked information from Wikileaks but he later insisted that he was not actually speaking to Julian Assange and that he had no direct knowledge that Russians were responsible for the Democratic hackings. The indictment does not contradict that later account.
The indictment clearly states that Stone told multiple campaign officials that he had such information and the question is who “directed” campaign officials to reach out to Stone. Obviously, many will want to know if that person was President Trump or his close aides. On the other hand, it also references people like Steve Bannon as not even returning his calls.
The important thing is that, even if Stone and the campaign did seek the email information, it would not be a crime. The crime is the conspiracy to hack the email system. Campaigns often seek confidential information obtained by journalists, leakers, whistleblowers and others. Indeed, the Clinton campaign (while denying its role before the election) funded the Steele dossier investigation to dig up dirt on Trump, including dirt from Russian intelligence figures. Even if Stone implicated Trump in seeking the information, it would merely establish the type of dirty politics that Stone expressly embraced as his curious calling and talent.
Nailing Roger Stone on false statements was hardly a challenge. Stone could not give an interview without contradicting himself on national television. The question is, without Stone, what is left of the hack-and-attack conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump campaign? Like the Trump Tower meeting, the Stone angle seems to have fizzled out. On closer examination, there clearly appears to be dirty politics but nothing that can be fairly described as a criminal conspiracy.
Mueller has been unrelenting in pursuing Stone. Now he has him. For whatever it is worth.
Jonathan Turley, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanTurley.