Just a half-mile from Capitol Hill, where the first witnesses were testifying in the opening day of public impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump on Wednesday, a jury at D.C.’s federal district courthouse heard closing arguments in the trial of Roger Stone, Trump’s friend and former political adviser. The jury began deliberating Thursday. By Friday morning, it had come to a conclusion: Stone was guilty of all seven counts on charges that included lying to Congress, obstruction of Congress, and witness tampering.
Trump, meanwhile, stands accused of abuse of presidential power in the Ukraine affair.
Though the two men face different allegations in different legal proceedings, the defenses offered by each were largely the same: What is truth, anyway? And, if the facts are what they say, so what?
In Trump’s case, this philosophy was best summed up on Wednesday by Rep. Mark Meadows, the outspoken Freedom Caucus member from North Carolina, who said during an early break in the impeachment proceedings, “I think what happens is, when we start to look at the facts, everybody has their impression of what truth is.”
In Stone’s case, federal prosecutors used the testimony of several witnesses and hundreds of pages of documents to make the case that Stone lied to Congress during testimony before the same House Intelligence Committee that is now investigating Trump’s Ukraine scandal, and then sought to cover it up. According to prosecutors, Stone misled the committee when he identified an intermediary between himself and Wikileaks as the journalist Randy Credico, said that he had no written communications with his intermediary, said he had not spoken with anyone in the campaign about WikiLeaks, and then attempted to cover his tracks by threatening Credico. The evidence and testimony show that Stone’s actual intermediaries would have been Jerome Corsi and Ted Malloch, that he had many electronic communications with both Corsi and with Credico, and that he had multiple communications with members of the Trump campaign about WikiLeaks.
Prosecutors argued that Stone went to the initial efforts to connect with WikiLeaks to find information about the release of the DNC hacks in order to prove himself useful to Trump and the campaign. They highlighted an Aug. 3, 2016, email written by Stone to then–Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort saying, “I have a plan to save Trump’s ass.” This email was sent right as Stone was beginning a private campaign to connect with WikiLeaks while claiming publicly that he knew there was more information coming from Julian Assange’s group that would damage Hillary Clinton.
But what do words even mean, really?
“No one knows what it means,” Stone defense attorney Bruce Rogow argued, referring to the email. There is ample evidence and testimony to suggest the “plan to save Trump’s ass” was to secure information about the WikiLeaks hack that might be beneficial to Trump. There are emails showing Stone’s efforts to secure that information, Stone’s public statements that he knew more damaging information would be forthcoming, and the testimony of former Trump campaign honchos Steve Bannon and Richard Gates that said Stone updated the campaign on his efforts and was viewed as its connection to WikiLeaks.
A Bannon staffer sent another message to Stone immediately after the release of the hacked emails of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta in October 2016, saying simply, “Well done.”
“Could have been that they went to a steakhouse and they wanted the steak ‘well done,’ ” Rogow said to laughter in the court gallery, if not the jury box.
Similarly, Rogow argued that when Stone told Credico in a text after he had received an invitation to testify to “do a Frank Pentangeli,” referring to the character who lied to congressional investigators about not knowing mob boss Michael Corleone in the film The Godfather Part II, there was “nothing malignant, nothing corrupt” in that exchange. Instead, he suggested Credico “is an impressionist.”
“He can do a Pentangeli,” he said.
Perhaps the most critical testimony came on Tuesday when Gates took the stand. Manafort’s former No. 2, who has pled guilty to multiple felony counts and entered a cooperation agreement with the government, said that in late July he had been in a Suburban on the way from Trump Tower to LaGuardia Airport with Trump when the then-candidate took a phone call and Gates heard Stone’s voice on the other end of the line. Gates testified that after the phone call, Trump “indicated that there was more information coming” from WikiLeaks. The clear implication is that Trump got the information from Stone.
“Nobody knows what that call is about,” Rogow countered. “What does that mean?” Stone’s attorney then argued that, despite his direct testimony, Gates might not have heard or understood Trump properly. “It’s noisy—there’s a lot of road noise,” Rogow said.
At that point, Rogow moved on to the second prong of Stone’s defense, saying that it wouldn’t have mattered if Stone had been directly updating the candidate about WikiLeaks’ plans for the hacked Russian emails. “Even if it did, what is the matter with that?” Rogow asked. “What is the matter with that?”
This strategy could be known as the “so what” defense. The “so what” defense parallels a theme that came up in the first House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearing on Wednesday. Last month, in confessing to a quid pro quo deal with the Ukrainians to withhold aid unless investigations were launched against Trump’s political rivals, White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney declared: “I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.” Mulvaney later retracted his statement, but the “get over it” line continues to be a Trump talking point, with the Trump campaign even launching a merchandising push around the slogan. Mulvaney’s “get over it” confession featured prominently in Democrats’ case against Trump in the hearing on Wednesday.
This “so what” defense also came up again and again in Stone’s closing argument. Even if Trump had sought and received advance notice of the WikiLeaks release of the Russian hacks, so what? “Even so: So what? So what?” Rogow repeated. “That is the question that you need to ask: So what?”
Stone’s efforts to get information from WikiLeaks was totally normal, he argued, and the revelation of that effort would not be damaging to Trump or Stone in any way. “This is what happens in campaigns—they look for opposition information,” Rogow said.
“Again, I come back to: So what?” Rogow insisted. “So what that they were interested in this [information]?”
But there’s a clear answer to Rogow’s repeated question. We know that if Trump was being updated on the WikiLeaks releases, that is information he would not have wanted public during Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference and the president. We know that because in sworn testimony Trump submitted to Mueller last November, the president told the special counsel: “I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with [Stone]. Nor do I recall being aware of Mr. Stone having discussed WikiLeaks with individuals associated with my campaign.” This would be contradicted by Gates’ testimony about the airport drive as well as his testimony that the campaign, including current White House official Stephen Miller, was brainstorming for the release of new information “based in part on … Stone’s prediction.” Gates further testified that Stone “indicated” to him that “he would be updating … the candidate” about WikiLeaks developments.
If Stone did this, it would directly contradict Trump’s testimony to Mueller, and it would now put the president on the hook for perjury.
In addition, the prosecution presented evidence that Stone himself was aware that Trump didn’t want him revealing the campaign’s efforts to connect with Wikileaks.
“Because of Trump I could never get away with asserting my Fifth Amendment right but you can,” Stone texted Credico on Dec. 1, 2017, to try to convince the journalist to refuse to testify. (Credico did ultimately plead the Fifth.) This, as well, was not proof of anything, according to the defense.
“You can look at things in a malevolent way, or you can look at things in a different way,” Rogow concluded.
After the defense wrapped, prosecutor Michael Marando ended the government’s own case by practically begging the jury to stick to the traditional definition of truth. “Truth matters,” Marando said. “Truth still matters, OK?”
He continued: “In our institutions of self-governance, courts of law or committee hearings, where people under oath have to testify, truth still matters.”
We now know where the jury landed in the Stone verdict. We’re all about to find out the extent to which that is still the case in Congress.
This piece has been updated with the jury’s verdict.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus