How Trump Adviser Roger Stone Became Washington’s Sleaziest Political Operator

His dirtiest trick was convincing people he had any influence to peddle.

Donald Trump advisor and political consultant Roger Stone speaks at an 'America First' unity rally on the opening day of the Republican National Convention, July 18, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Donald Trump adviser and political consultant Roger Stone speaks at an America First unity rally on the opening day of the Republican National Convention on July 18 in Cleveland.

Brooks Kraft/Getty Images

I wrote the story about Roger Stone reprinted below in 1985, when I was a college student, taking a year off to work as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. This was Reagan-era Washington, where the old ideal of public service had given way to the service business of exploiting political connections for profit. What made Stone stand out in that tawdry scene was his utter shamelessness. He bragged about being a 19-year-old bit player in the Watergate scandal and about his friendship with Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy’s notorious henchman. Along with his partners, among them Trump adviser Paul Manafort, he engaged in campaign tactics no one else would admit to and took lobbying clients no one else would represent, including murderous foreign dictators.

It became clear to me when I was reporting the story that Stone was less power player than con artist. He cultivated a reputation for being a bad boy, playing dirty tricks and crossing ethical lines. In practice, so far as I could tell, he was mostly shaking down his clients, who paid him a lot of money based on the largely false impression that he had real influence. He was a bluffer, implying he advised people he didn’t, and a leaker, ratting out his allies in pursuit of his own agenda.

After my story came out, Stone claimed it was good for his business. I don’t think it was. After Jack Kemp dropped out of the 1988 presidential race, his only nationally known client was Arlen Specter, the late Pennsylvania senator. He would emerge every so often at the center of some bizarre gambit or scandal, advising Al Sharpton on a presidential run, leaving abusive voicemails for Eliot Spitzer’s father, proposing to run for governor of Florida on a platform of legalizing marijuana, or publishing preposterous conspiracy books charging LBJ with masterminding John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Showing off his Nixon tattoo and giving interviews in Miami sex clubs, he was the definition of a marginal political figure.

Another seemingly marginal political figure has brought him back to prominence. Stone has had a long relationship with Donald Trump going back to their mutual friendship with Roy Cohn in the 1980s. For many years, Stone was a lobbyist for Trump’s casino business. He was also the perennial leader of the “Draft Trump” campaign—the person who encouraged Trump’s birther obsession and finally got Trump to run this year.

In August 2015, Stone either quit or was fired from Trump’s campaign. Nonetheless, he remains a Trump surrogate and dirt-dealer, most recently smearing Khizr Khan as a terrorist and predicting a “bloodbath” if the Democrats try to “steal” the election. Thirty years ago, I called him the state-of-the-art political sleazeball. And I’ve got to hand it to him—in the years since, no one has come close to taking that title away from him.

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This story was originally published in the New Republic on Dec. 9, 1985.

“Roger Stone is back working in New Jersey and that could be bad news for state Democrats.” So begins a typical behind-the-scenes piece in the Trenton Times about the supposed enfant terrible of Northeastern political strategy. It seems the political consultant and lobbyist Roger Stone, who engineered Gov. Thomas Kean’s 1981 campaign, has a plan for “the creation of a permanent Republican majority for New Jersey.” Stone told the credulous reporter not only that he would install a Republican majority in the state Legislature in 1985 but that he would replace Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg with Kean in 1988 and elect Rep. Jim Courter governor in 1989.

The Trenton Times in not alone in falling for Stone’s self-generated image as a kingmaker. Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and Richard Nixon all think he has the ability to drive nails into the coffin of the Democratic Party. Rupert Murdoch, Fortune 500 CEOs, and Caribbean heads of state pay Stone to lobby these men. He’s part of a new breed of Washington influence-peddlers who help politicians get elected and then visit them on behalf of private interests. It is hard to say how Stone (age 32, salary $450,000) became the best in the business. But in looking at what he does, one discovers the art of political gold mining. If you’re well-connected, and not too ideological or scrupulous, today’s Washington is a boomtown.

Stone’s specialty within the powerhouse consulting firm of Black, Manafort, Stone, and Atwater is making Republican candidates appeal to traditionally Democratic voter groups: blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and especially blue-collar Catholics. “If you can move them into the Republican coalition, you will have victory in the Northeast,” he says. Because Stone, who managed the Northeast for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, is seen as having wooed these voters away from the Democrats, candidates for Congress and governorships are lining up outside his firm’s lavish Alexandria, Virginia, office to pay him upward of $100,000 to work on their campaigns. “He has tried to appeal outside the usual class of Republican voters,” says Kemp, whom Stone is advising about the 1988 election. “He knows the Republican Party has to drop its country club mentality.”

It is often ironically noted that the foremost Republican authority on blue-collar voters has a taste for $700 double-breasted suits and Mercedes sports cars. But Stone is rarely attacked for his assertion that there is a science of winning blue-collar votes. When you ask him how he lured white ethnics to the Republican side, he says he appeals to them as individuals rather than as a group. When you ask for specifics, he says he emphasizes “incentive economics and traditional values,” as if Republicans would never think to campaign on those issues without his expensive counsel. Stone’s partner Lee Atwater recently told the Washington Post that he studies the National Enquirer every week, since it’s the literary staple of America’s swing voter. All this “expertise” amounts essentially to a respectable veneer for what Stone and his firm really offer: connections, hype, and hardball negative campaigning.

Stone is widely credited with making the difference in Thomas Kean’s narrow victory in the 1981 New Jersey governor’s race. This was achieved by portraying the liberal Republican contender as a conservative supply-sider. Stone convinced Kean to campaign on the promise of a tax cut; once elected, Kean raised taxes. He also convinced prominent friends like Kemp to do television spots for Kean, assuring him victory in the Republican primary. “I don’t advocate candidates’ changing their positions—just trimming their sails,” Stone says. “I do have principles.”

Stone’s connections to the bigwigs of the Republican Party (or the illusion thereof) account in part for his tremendous popularity with wealthy unknowns. “Roger lent me credibility,” a Republican pol named Richard Bernstein, who lost a race for New York City comptroller, told the New York Times in 1982. It’s a promotion racket—for $100,000, Stone tells small-fry candidates, you too can be taken seriously. But office-seekers like Bernstein hire Stone based on the impression that he handles the political future of everyone from Jack Kemp to Jeane Kirkpatrick. Asked about his oft-noted relationship to Kirkpatrick, Stone said, “We talk politics—I take her at her word that she doesn’t want to run for the Senate or for president,” indicating with a wave of the hand that he advises her on her political future. Kirkpatrick told a different story. She remembered that someone named Roger Stone called her once. She said she didn’t wish to sound rude, but they “have no relationship whatsoever.”

If the impressive names Roger Stone likes to drop don’t convince you to spend your money at Black, Manafort, Stone, and Atwater, his reputation for “hardball politics” will. Stone’s failed effort to elect Jeffrey Bell to the Senate in 1982 included wide distribution of photos of Bell’s primary opponent, Millicent Fenwick, chatting with Bella Abzug and attacks on her supposed left-wing views, which are actually no more liberal than Gov. Kean’s. The scurrilous congressional campaign Stone organized for Tommy Evans stigmatized Delaware incumbent Thomas Carper as a wife-beater. Often, as with the Evans-Carper race, the low blows backfire. But Stone rarely mentions the many second-place finishers he has backed—from Lew Lehrman to Prescott Bush—when he brags about his track record. He doesn’t like to be associated with losers, even while he’s working for them. In 1984 Stone backed Mary Mochary, who challenged New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. “Roger was characteristically bad-mouthing his client, saying she wasn’t up to it,” a fellow consultant recalls. “He was being paid to say she would do well and already he was working to dissociate himself from her in Washington.”

Stone’s close relationships to Washington reporters are legendary. He supplies them with off-the-record stories and good quotes on background. In exchange, they print the dirt he plants about his enemies and hype his new clients and valuable services. “He is an expert at dropping stuff unfavorable to his opponents,” says a political writer who has used and been used by Stone for years. “And he is very accurate. You don’t last long at that game if you leak bullshit.” Several correspondents confirmed that Stone is one of the best sources in Washington for “inside dirt.” On the Bitburg controversy, for example, Stone is said to have indicated which White House staffers insisted on proceeding with the controversial visit. None of these reporters wanted to risk losing a shovelful in the future by speaking for attribution.

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Stone apparently has been at this business since early childhood. He says he became a Republican at age 12, after a neighbor in Norwalk, Connecticut, gave him a copy of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Stone was devastated by Goldwater’s defeat but remained fully devoted to the party, rising through the ranks of youth groups like Teenage Republicans, College Republicans, Young Republicans, and the Young Americans for Freedom. As a 19-year-old student at George Washington University, Stone was the youngest Watergate dirty trickster. On orders from Committee for the Re-Election of the President  boss Bart Porter, Stone hired Michael McMinoway—known as “Sedan Chair II”—to infiltrate George McGovern’s campaign and report back. Using the pseudonym “Jason Rainier,” Stone made contributions to Pete McCloskey’s campaign in New Hampshire in the name of supposed left-wing groups like Young Socialist Alliance. He then sent the receipts along with an anonymous letter to the Manchester Union-Leader. He also recommended that CREEP hire a fellow student named Theodore Brill, who was subsequently paid $150 a week to spy on “radical groups.” Stone says that the ideas for this “kid stuff”—none of which was actually illegal at the time—emanated from Charles Colson and that if he had refused to do it, CREEP would have fired him and gotten someone else. Stone’s Watergate involvement made headlines again last year during the Edwin Meese confirmation hearings, when a note saying “Roger Stone bagman for paid informant in McGovern campaign, kept his mouth shut so they can’t touch him” disappeared from Meese’s 1980 campaign files.

In 1974 Sen. Robert Dole fired Stone, who was working in his office, after Jack Anderson wrote a column detailing Stone’s Watergate involvement. Unwilling or unable to work for elected officials, Stone worked on campaigns. In 1975, frustrated by how difficult it was for Republican candidates to raise money, Stone founded the National Conservative Political Action Committee with a friend from high school, Terry Dolan, and a future partner, Charlie Black. In 1977 he left NCPAC to become president of the Young Republicans. The next year Stone got his first taste of political consulting working for pollster Arthur Finkelstein (who actually does advise Jeane Kirkpatrick). Reagan’s 1980 campaign director, John Sears, hired Stone for the campaign in 1979.

Reagan fired Sears and Charlie Black on the day of the New Hampshire primary in February 1980. Stone stayed on for the rest of the campaign and joined Black’s new consulting/lobbying form after the election. It was then, according to Dolan, that Stone moved closer to the political center, becoming more flexible on controversial social issues. “You’ve got to be less ideological or it costs you money in that business,” Dolan says. But Stone’s moderation has cost him points with the far right. Paul Weyrich calls him a “yuppie libertarian” and claims he is responsible for Kemp’s shunning of the religious right.

Stone does not consider his Watergate involvement an especially touchy topic. According to his friend David Keene, a former strategist who is now a lobbyist/lawyer, “Roger likes the aura of having done something bad in his past. You get the feeling that he’s sorry it was so minor. He likes to say, ‘Watch me, I’m a tough guy.’ ” Stone cannot be said to shun disgraced Watergate figures. He currently serves as his friend Richard Nixon’s “informal liaison” to the rest of the world. The much-publicized press dinners Nixon held at his New Jersey home last year were Stone’s idea. He was also responsible for getting the 1984 Reagan campaign to talk to Nixon about strategy.

Stone says he turns to Nixon for “sage political advice.” He argues that Nixon retains “a unique understanding of the electoral structure.” Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller’s The Quest for the Presidency 1984 and Jack Germond and Jules Witcover’s Wake Us When It’s Over both relate the dramatic story of Stone, his partner Lee Atwater, and Reagan campaign manager (now rival consultant/lobbyist) Ed Rollins visiting Nixon in a South Carolina motel room. Nixon supposedly devised for the Reagan camp the so-called Ohio strategy. Both campaign books give space and respect to Stone’s explanation of how this strategy—which amounted to spending a lot of money in Ohio because it has 25 electoral votes—was essential to Reagan’s victory in an election where he carried 49 states. The authors seem so delighted to be getting the inside story that they don’t notice they’re being conned.

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Black, Manafort, Stone, and Peter Kelly (a separate firm, since Atwater sticks exclusively to campaign consulting) have parlayed their success at consulting into a profitable lobbying business. Giver their connections, companies like Kaman Aerospace, Salomon Brothers, Johnson & Johnson, Rupert Murdoch’s News Group, the Tobacco Institute, and the governments of Bermuda, St. Lucia, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, and Barbados are anxious to employ them as lobbyists.

According to disclosure reports filed with Congress, Kaman pays the firm $100,000 a year to push its new naval helicopter. Salomon Brothers was paying the firm $6,000 a month for work on “no specific legislation [that] is presently pending.” The investment banking firm is now paying these professed Republican ideologues $20,000 a month to fight Reagan’s proposal to reform the law on tax-exempt bonds. Also according to the reports, the Footwear Industries of America trade organization pays the firm $50,000 a year to fight for import quotas on shoes. The financially beleaguered Chicago Regional Transportation Authority pays the firm nearly $40,000 a year for, to quote the answer to questions on the disclosure report: “1. indefinite; 2. mass transit matters generally; 3. none.” The RTA says that $40,000 isn’t much to pay for “keeping the lines of communication open” with Urban Mass Transportation Administration chief Ralph Stanley.

Why are corporate fat cats, impoverished local agencies, and foreign governments turning in droves to Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly? “My personal access to governors, senators, and congressmen is of value to a client,” Stone says. He has no qualms about selling his “access”—what used to be known pejoratively as influence-peddling. “I’ve helped members of Congress get elected and next term asked them to look at an issue—I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It’s not illegal.” Perhaps Stone learned this defense from fellow CREEP-ster Maurice Stans, who argued that his conduct was perfectly acceptable since it didn’t violate the law. Stone adds that the question of a conflict rarely arises for him since most of his time is devoted to campaign consulting. But, he adds, his partner Charlie Black often lobbies Dole, whom he once worked for. “It’s no conflict.”

A week after Stone made these remarks, Newsweek published a story on “One-Stop Influence Shops,” which said it was BMS&K policy for a partner who had worked on an elected official’s campaign not to lobby that individual in office. When I asked Stone about the contradiction, he said he couldn’t remember the conflict ever arising—although the rule prohibiting it was merely an “internal decision on a minor point.” He repeated that the problem doesn’t crop up, since his only two clients are the Bermuda government and Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Inc. He says that Black “handles the Hill contacts” for Murdoch and that Bermuda isn’t interested in domestic politics. (Perhaps the Bermuda government considers foreign aid a purely external affair.) Whichever of them actually handles it, neither Black nor Stone has filed the legally required congressional lobbying report for work on Murdoch’s behalf. The firm has, however, registered at the Justice Department as a foreign agent for the News Group.

When I called Stone to ask about the contradiction in the Newsweek story, he had a few questions for me. “I track your steps everywhere,” he said. “Why have you been asking people if I had a falling out with Jack Kemp?” I told Stone that I had heard a rumor to that effect. His friend David Keene mentioned that Kemp had become upset because Stone was “repeating stories.” Another source confirmed on background that Stone was in the habit of gossiping about Kemp’s personal life and that it “got him in trouble with Kemp.” According to Keene, “Jack said something to him and Roger has gotten a bit more cautious.”

Thereafter, few people I called could be restrained from describing the remarkable symbiosis between Jack and Roger before I even asked about it. Kemp’s press secretary, John Buckley, called Stone “Kemp’s principal political adviser” and spoke of “Jack’s high regard for Stone’s intellect and instincts.” He said Stone was at Kemp’s Super Bowl party. Shortly thereafter, Kemp himself called to say that Stone was a friend and that they spoke regularly about where he should be campaigning to keep his options open for 1988.

It is impossible to prove that Stone and Kemp ever had a falling out, since they both deny it. It also doesn’t really matter. What is interesting is how anxious Stone became over what hardly amounts to an allegation—although he seemed unconcerned that my piece would describe in detail his involvement in Watergate. Kemp is Stone’s “only game in town,” according to one rival consultant. But the general perception that Stone, and his partner Charlie Black, are close to Kemp brings more wealthy candidates, corporations, and crowned heads to the firm. If word got out that Stone had a falling out with one of the Republican front-runners for 1988, it could prove terribly damaging to a business built on the fragile foundations of connections and access.

Roger Stone’s success at selling his connections is another symptom of what’s happened to Washington under Reagan. Republicans are inherently no less devoted to their principles than anyone else. But an unprecedented number of Reagan’s top aides, including Lyn Nofziger, Michael Deaver, Stone’s partner Lee Atwater, and most recently Ed Rollins, have abandoned helping Reagan make conservative ideas reality in order to sell their connections to the highest bidders—whether in service of those ideals or not. “I spent a lot of years doing things for love,” Rollins told Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post. “Now I’m going to do things for money. … I think I can make between three-quarters and a million dollars.” All feel that after suffering on $75,000 for a few years, they have “earned” the right to bring home six or seven figures.

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It seems silly to accuse these former public servants of selling out their ideals to greed when they advertise the same themselves. Negative publicity about abuse of privilege selling “access” only attracts business by proving that their connections are real enough for someone to deplore them. Ken Auletta wrote in his collection Hard Feelings that he was surprised when Stone’s friend Roy Cohn was not offended by a devastating profile he published in Esquire several years ago. Cohn thought it a hatchet job, but was not overly upset since the piece reinforced his reputation as a ruthless advocate for his clients. Likewise, Stone doesn’t chafe at allegations of dirty tricks, since they demonstrate that he plays hardball politics. Consultant/lobbyists believe, like Nietzsche, that whatever doesn’t kill them makes them stronger.

Most political strategists hope to win elections so they can join the government and implement their ideas. After Reagan was elected, Stone turned down the high-powered deputyship Rollins offered him. “I would never take a job in government,” he says. “I’m interested in politics.” He claims to do his part for conservative ideals by helping to elect Republican candidates. Why then did he work for Ed Koch in his 1981 re-election bid? “Koch ran in the Republican primary.” Stone added that he would never work for Koch as a Democrat. “You can’t work both sides of the street,” he says. If those are his political principles, no one can fairly accuse Roger Stone of having betrayed them.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.