The indictment of President Donald Trump’s longtime ally Roger Stone has raised new questions about just what special counsel Robert Mueller has uncovered during his 20-month investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
One question is whether the indictment gets Mueller’s prosecutors any closer to the heart of the investigation: determining whether there was any “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The intelligence community concluded after the election that Russian government operatives furnished the activist group WikiLeaks with reams of private emails purloined from Hillary Clinton and other Democrats in 2016. But Mueller has yet to prove that Stone or any other Trump campaign associates served as conduits or facilitators in the theft and dissemination of the damaging emails.
Another question raised by the Stone indictment is whether the charges against the presidential confidant represent a real breakthrough in the investigation or just another case of Trump allies getting caught lying to investigators or members of Congress
To Trump allies, Stone’s indictment on charges of lying to Congress and other "procedural" offenses epitomizes an investigation gone amok, a politically motivated “witch hunt” to ensnare otherwise innocent associates of the president.
To his critics, the charges show how the Trump campaign used Stone as a witting conduit to WikiLeaks as the anti-secrecy website dumped tens of thousands of embarrassing emails and other documents aimed at hurting Clinton’s electoral prospects.
Stone, a (former U.S. President) Richard Nixon hero worshipper and an informal adviser to Trump for the past 40 years, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in federal court to seven criminal counts.
On its surface, the indictment does not allege any criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. Instead, it accuses Stone of making false statements, obstruction of a legal proceeding and witness tampering – charges that are related mostly to Stone’s congressional testimony in 2017 about his contacts with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.
In his brief appearance before a federal judge in Washington, D.C., Stone said little. But since his pre-dawn arrest in Florida last Friday, the self-described "dirty trickster" has spoken in several TV interviews, insisting he did nothing illegal or out of the ordinary for a gung-ho political operative.
"That's what I engaged in. It's called politics and they haven't criminalized it, at least not yet," Stone said Sunday on ABC News.
"All I did was take publicly available information and try to hype it to get it as much attention as possible, because I had a tip, the information was politically significant and that it would come in October," Stone said.
Stone caused a stir during the campaign by hyping the WikiLeaks email dumps and insinuating advance knowledge of their release.
The indictment against him alleges that Stone maintained much closer than previously-known ties with the Trump campaign even after he left it in mid-2015. Through much of 2016, according to the indictment, Stone remained in regular contact with senior Trump campaign officials as they sought to learn about the WikiLeaks email releases.
After the website published an initial batch of Democratic emails, “a senior Trump campaign official” – believed to be either former campaign chairman Paul Manafort or former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates – was “directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information” WikiLeaks had about the Clinton campaign, according to the indictment.
In October 2016, just before WikiLeaks published emails hacked from the account of Clinton’s campaign chairman, Stone received an email from a “high ranking Trump campaign official” – identified in press accounts as ousted Trump strategist Steve Bannon – asking about the “status of future releases” by WikiLeaks.
Stone replied that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had a “serious security concern” but that the site would release “a load every week going forward.”
Bennett Gershman, a professor at Pace Law School in New York who closely follows the Mueller investigation, said the indictment paints Stone as a "conduit" between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks.
?“It gets the investigation closer to the inner workings of the Trump campaign and the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia,” Gershman said.
Trump has denied any advance knowledge of the WikiLeaks email dumps. Stone has said he never discussed them with Trump during or after the campaign.
While the indictment doesn't’ charge any conspiracy between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks or Russia, that charge may come later, Gershman said. How much later is only a guess. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said Monday that the special counsel investigation was "close to being completed."
“This is a preliminary charge that will become much more significant later on,” Gershman said.
Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor now a law professor at George Washington University, said the special counsel would have charged Stone with conspiracy had he thought Stone's contacts with WikiLeaks were illegal.
“I think the fact that the special counsel didn’t charge that conspiracy might be a bit of a sign that maybe the evidence of a broader criminal conspiracy isn't’ there, at least not yet,” Eliason said.
Stone’s actions may have been "deplorable" but not illegal, he said.
“You can call that colluding, working together, sharing information but there is not necessarily an underlying crime involved there,” Eliason said.
Paul Rosenzweig, another former federal prosecutor, said there appears to be more to the indictment than meets the eye.
“I think there are some hints here of more information about interactions with the Russians that do continue to build a case for illegal coordination between trump camp and Russia,” Rosenzweig, now a senior fellow at the R Street in Washington, said.