Roger Stone, the self-described "dirty trickster" with a tattoo of Richard Nixon's head on his back, should appreciate the irony that he has been tripped up by the Watergate-era adage that "it's not the crime; it's the cover-up." Except in this case it looks like there was no crime to cover up, which makes the messy web of deceit described in the federal indictment against Stone seem like a trap he set for himself.
The indictment, obtained by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, charges Stone, a longtime adviser to Donald Trump who worked for the billionaire developer's campaign until August 2015, with one count of obstructing a proceeding (an investigation by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence), five counts of making false statements during a 2017 HPSCI hearing, and one count of tampering with a witness by trying to dissuade a now-former friend from contradicting his congressional testimony. Those are all felonies, punishable by up to five years in prison for each of the first six counts and up to 20 for the seventh.
All of the allegedly criminal statements and communications relate to WikiLeaks' publication of emails stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, in 2016. The hacking itself was a crime, and if Mueller could show that people in the Trump campaign knew about it in advance, they could be implicated in that crime. Stone has repeatedly denied any such foreknowledge, and nothing in the indictment contradicts him on that point.
To the contrary, the emails and public statements quoted in the indictment paint Stone as eager to see whatever damaging information WikiLeaks had acquired about Clinton but hazy as to what it might be. The indictment does not allege that Stone had any direct contact with WikiLeaks, let alone the hackers. He comes across not as a criminal conspirator but as a self-promoter whose bullshit caught up with him.
In June and July 2016, nearly a year after he left the Trump campaign, Stone suggested in emails to campaign officials that he had inside knowledge of damaging Clinton-related documents that WikiLeaks was about to publish, and they seemed to take him seriously. That August he publicly claimed to be in touch with the organization's founder, Julian Assange, who then as now was holed up in Ecuador's London embassy. After WikiLeaks denied any direct communication with Stone, he said he had been in touch with an "intermediary," who at that point seems to have been Jerome Corsi, a conservative writer and conspiracy theorist. Later Stone also tried to get information about WikiLeaks' plans from Randy Credico, a radio host who interviewed Assange on August 25, 2016.
Much of the dissembling described in the indictment relates to Stone's claim that Credico was his only source of information about WikiLeaks' plans. Credico had privately warned Stone not to say that, since Stone's references to an "intermediary" predated Credico's interview with Assange. But Stone stuck to that story in his testimony to the HPSCI on September 26, 2017, and repeatedly urged Credico, who also was asked to testify, not to contradict him. Hence the witness tampering charge.
In addition to the Corsi/Credico switch, Stone is charged with falsely testifying that he had no emails in which he discussed Assange or WikiLeaks with third parties, that he never asked his intermediary to pass along messages to Assange, that the intermediary did not communicate with WikiLeaks by email or text message, and that he never told anyone in the Trump campaign about his conversations with the intermediary. Based on the testimony and emails quoted in the indictment, it is hard to see how Stone could claim his testimony was truthful, although a creative lawyer might discover wiggle room.
After the HPSCI asked Credico to testify in November 2017, the indictment says, Stone urged him to either back him up or exercise his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Credico ultimately declined to testify voluntarily and told the committee he would invoke the Fifth Amendment if required to appear by a subpoena. Why Stone did not do the same thing is not exactly clear, although apparently he worried that it would make Trump look bad by implying that his former adviser had done something criminal. "Because of tromp [sic] I could never get away with [asserting] my Fifth Amendment rights but you can," Stone wrote in a text message to Credico on December 1, 2017. "I guarantee you you are the one who gets indicted for perjury if you're stupid enough to testify."
Credico thought Stone had no one to blame but himself. "You should have just been honest with the house Intel committee," he wrote in an email last May. "You've opened yourself up to perjury charges like an idiot."
It is hard to argue with that assessment. Judging from the indictment, nothing Stone did in connection with WikiLeaks prior to his congressional testimony was illegal. That includes his communications with the Trump campaign, his suggestion that Corsi obtain emails related to the Clinton Foundation from Assange, and his queries to Corsi and Credico about the dirt that WikiLeaks had on Clinton. Even if Stone had actually obtained and shared purloined emails from WikiLeaks (as many news organizations eventually did), it would not have been a crime. Lying to a congressional committee about those noncriminal acts is another matter. Stone's problem, like Michael Flynn's, is not what he did but what he said about what he did.
Trump himself, given his penchant for prevarication, could fall into a similar trap if his lawyers let him. But two years after the investigation into Russian attempts to influence the presidential election began, we have not seen any real evidence of illegal collusion by the Trump campaign. It still looks like the cover-up is the only crime.