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It's been a long wait, but Roger Stone is finally sitting in the defendant's chair. While special counsel Robert Mueller wrapped up his investigations months ago, this is an aspect of his work that he handed off to other prosecutors to finish up.
Stone is a former adviser to Donald Trump's 2016 campaign. He was accused of working with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and/or the Russians to get former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman's emails published.
Stone was pursued for some time, and eventually he was charged with witness tampering, obstructing an official proceeding, and five counts of making false statements.
After Mueller finished up his investigations, he released a final report. The redactions in the report have been much discussed. One of the reasons for some of the redactions was because of open investigations, including the one following Stone, which will go on to be the last trial tied to Mueller.
"The evidence in this case will show Roger Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee because the truth looked bad for the Trump campaign, and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump," said prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky.
Stone's attorney, Bruce Rogow, said Stone had no intention of lying and appeared before the House panel voluntarily. It may have been true that Stone bragged about connections he didn't have, explained the attorney, but that didn't mean he intended to lie to them.
Zelinsky relayed the story of what happened on June 14, 2016, the night before the Democratic National Committee announced its computer system had been hacked: Stone called Trump. After WikiLeaks began releasing the hacked DNC emails in late July, Stone called Trump's phone again. They were on the line together for 10 minutes.
No one can say what the two talked about, but "about an hour after that call that Roger Stone had with then-candidate Trump. Roger Stone sent another email," explained the prosecutor. He asked a friend in London to try to contact Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.
"This case is not about who hacked the Democratic National Committee servers. This case is not about whether Roger Stone had any communications with Russians. And this case is not about politics," reasons Zelinsky.
"This case is about Roger Stone's false testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in an attempt to obstruct the investigation and to tamper with evidence."
The prosecutors in this case say Stone lied several times: when he told the House Intelligence Committee in September 2017 that he didn't have texts or emails regarding his 2016 WikiLeaks discussions, when he said he only had one associate who tried to be a go-between with Assange, and when he claimed he hadn't spoken about WikiLeaks' plans with anyone in the Trump campaign.
Zelinsky told the court that Stone lied because if Congress had found out about all his emails and texts regarding what WikiLeaks had on Clinton, "it would have unraveled all of the other lies Roger Stone told."
He also brought up an email from Stone to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on August 3, 2016, asking to speak with them. When Manafort asked why, Stone replied, "To save Trump's a--. Call me please."
Manafort was convicted of unrelated financial crimes last year, then took a plea deal in relation to the Mueller Russia investigation, pleading guilty to conspiracy and witness tampering. He's serving 7-1/2 years at a federal correctional institution in Loretta, Pennsylvania.
After WikiLeaks began releasing the hacked emails, Stone emailed Trump campaign strategist Steve Bannon. "Trump can still win, but time is running out," he wrote. "I know how to win, but it ain't pretty."
Rogow reasoned that Stone had agreed to testify without a subpoena and in public, as he thought the questions would be about any contacts he had with Russians.
"The evidence will show that's not the usual way that people go to a committee hearing, certainly if they're intending to lie," he said.
He added that his client was exercising his First Amendment rights during the election. "Supporting the president or a candidate for president is not a crime of any sort," he told the jury.
"We are not here to try Russian collusion; there has been no finding of Russian collusion with regard to Mr. Stone, no finding of Russian collusion with regard to the campaign."
There were other important contacts of Stone's as well, including conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi and radio show host Randy Credico. Stone relied on both of them to try to find out more about what information WikiLeaks had and what their plans were for making it public.
Rogow noted that House investigators never determined that Stone "knew anything other than what was in the public arena" regarding the hack by the Russians.
"He did brag about his credibility to find out what was going on," he said, "but he had no intermediary."
"It's made-up stuff," he told the jury, insisting that Credico and Corsi "were playing Mr. Stone" and that "he took the bait."
While Stone did brag about his contacts and access, it was because it played well in the media and in politics. He was "playing others" by faking "he had some kind of direct contact" with WikiLeaks.
Zelinsky also impressed upon the court that the crux of the case against Stone that will play out in the trial that is expected to last around two weeks, will not be evidnece from witnesses but from Stone's own words.
"Amazingly, most of the evidence in this case is in the written record — it's emails and text messages. showing what really happened. If those records had come out, the truth would have been exposed," he said.
It has not been stated whether Stone will take the stand in his trial or not. If he doesn't speak, it will be something unusual for him.
He was charged with witness tampering after he tried to convince a witness to lie and say he was an intermediary for contacts with WikiLeaks or that he couldn't recall anything he'd said to Stone.
He was also put under a court gag order that bars him from commenting about the case or prosecutors because he was repeatedly posting on social media about his indictment, federal agents, intelligence agencies, and the judge. He even posted a photo of Judge Amy Berman Jackson's face next to the crosshairs of a gun scope.
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