President Trump’s commutation of the prison sentence of his longtime confidante Roger Stone is wholly unsurprising. Indeed, given Trump’s repeated teasing of the matter over the life of the case against Stone, it would have been something of a surprise had he not intervened so that his felonious friend was spared time behind bars.
But the predictable nature of Trump’s action should not obscure its rank corruption. In fact, the predictability makes the commutation all the more corrupt, the capstone of an all-but-open attempt on the president’s part to obstruct justice in a self-protective fashion over a protracted period of time. That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s actually not. Trump publicly encouraged Stone not to cooperate with Robert Mueller’s investigation, he publicly dangled clemency as a reward for silence, and he has now delivered. The act is predictable precisely because the corrupt action is so naked.
In a normal world, this pattern of conduct would constitute an almost prototypical impeachable offense. But this is not a normal world. Congress is unlikely to bestir itself to do anything about what Trump has done—just as it has previously done nothing about the obstruction allegations detailed in the Mueller report. Indeed, in the midst of a presidential campaign, a second impeachment would surely be ill advised. The only remedy for this behavior, at least while Trump remains in office, has to lie in accountability in the context of Trump’s campaign for reelection.
That is why it is so important to understand the history that led to the Stone commutation, just how corrupt it is, and why the predictability of the president’s action actually inflames public outrage—not inures the public to what Trump has done here.
Roger Stone isn’t just Trump’s confidante or friend. According to newly unsealed material in the Mueller report, he’s also a person who had the power to reveal to investigators that Trump likely lied to Mueller—and to whom Trump publicly dangled rewards if Stone refused to provide Mueller with that information. Now, it seems, the president is making good on that promise.
When the report first became public in April 2019, it described how Stone reached out to WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign and represented himself to the Trump campaign as having inside information on upcoming releases of information damaging to Hillary Clinton. But a significant portion of the material on Stone was redacted because of ongoing criminal proceedings against him. Recently, however, following the guilty verdict against Stone, a court unsealed that hidden material thanks to litigation by BuzzFeed News and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). The newly unredacted information—some but not all of which was revealed over the course of Stone’s trial, but some of which was not previously public—is highly revealing of Stone’s relationship with the president.
During the 2016 campaign, Mueller writes, Stone “made several attempts to contact WikiLeaks founder Assange, boasted of his access to Assange, and was in regular contact with Campaign officials about the releases that Assange made and was believed to be planning.” He spoke repeatedly about his connections to Assange, witnesses told Mueller, and his ability to find out what new releases of information WikiLeaks was planning. Crucially, the unredacted information includes testimony from multiple witnesses who described Stone’s conversations about upcoming WikiLeaks releases with high-level campaign officials—including Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort—and even Trump himself.
According to Manafort, Trump personally told the chairman that he should keep in touch with Stone about WikiLeaks. Another campaign official, Rick Gates, recalled an incident during the campaign in which Trump spoke by phone with Stone and then told Gates that, as Mueller paraphrases, “more releases of damaging information would be coming.” Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen told Mueller about overhearing a phone call in which Stone told Trump that “he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and in a couple of days WikiLeaks would release information.” Then, Mueller writes, once WikiLeaks began dumping material damaging to Clinton in July 2016, Trump “said to Cohen something to the effect of, ‘I guess Roger was right.’”
So Trump clearly knew about and encouraged Stone’s outreach to WikiLeaks, the unredacted report shows. Yet in written answers the president provided to Mueller’s office in the course of the special counsel’s investigation, Trump insisted that he did not recall “the specifics of any call [he] had” with Stone during the campaign or any discussions with Stone of WikiLeaks. And shortly after he submitted those answers, the unredacted report states, Trump began tweeting publicly in support of Stone—calling him “brave” and congratulating his “guts” for refusing to testify.
Trump’s tweets were always suspicious, to say the least. And his answers to Mueller seemed less than entirely credible even when the redacted report was first released. But the newly revealed text makes clear Mueller’s suspicions that Trump lied in his written answers—and then pushed Stone not to testify in order to prevent Mueller from discovering that lie. As Mueller put it dryly: “[T]he President’s conduct could also be viewed as reflecting his awareness that Stone could provide evidence that would run counter to the President’s denials and would link the President to Stone’s efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks.” The special counsel also writes that Trump’s tweets to Stone—along with his tweets criticizing Cohen, who was by then cooperating with investigators—“support the inference that the President intended to communicate a message that witnesses could be rewarded for refusing to provide testimony adverse to the President and disparaged if they chose to cooperate.”
Stone did, indeed, refuse to provide testimony adverse to Trump. And while his precise relationship to WikiLeaks and Assange was never fully explained, he stood trial for lies to Congress denying his efforts to contact WikiLeaks, and for intimidating another witness who could have contradicted those lies. As the judge in Stone’s case put it: “He was prosecuted for covering up for the President.”
Now, with Trump’s commutation, Stone has received the precise reward Trump dangled at the time his possible testimony was at issue.
“Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency,” the White House said Friday evening. In the White House’s telling, Stone was targeted by out-of-control Mueller prosecutors for mere “process” crimes when their “collusion delusion” fell apart. He was subject to needless humiliation in his arrest, and he did not get a fair trial. “[P]articularly in light of the egregious facts and circumstances surrounding his unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial, the President has determined to commute his sentence. Roger Stone has already suffered greatly. He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!”
Indeed he is. But the story may not be over.
“Time to put Roger Stone in the grand jury to find out what he knows about Trump but would not tell. Commutation can’t stop that,” tweeted Andrew Weissman, one of Mueller’s top prosecutors, following the president’s action.
That’s most unlikely while the Justice Department remains in the hands of Attorney General William Barr. But it’s far from unthinkable should Trump leave office in January. What’s more, the commutation means that the story Mueller tells about potential obstruction vis-a-vis Stone did not end with the activity described by the Mueller report. It is a continuing pattern of conduct up until the present day. That potentially makes it easier for a future Justice Department to revive at least one of the obstruction questions that Barr squelched when he closed the cases Mueller intentionally did not resolve. In addition to all the facts reported by Mueller, including facts that have been redacted until recently, Trump has now consummated the deal he dangled before Stone.
That’s something the Justice Department may want to examine anew—someday.
Impeachment Investigators Exploring Whether Trump Lied to Mueller
As part of the Russia inquiry, President Trump had given written answers to questions from Robert S. Mueller III.
House Democrats are exploring whether President Trump lied in his written answers to Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, a lawyer for the House told a federal appeals court on Monday, raising the prospect of an additional basis for an article of impeachment.
The acknowledgment refocused attention on a quiet debate among Democrats about whether any impeachment of Mr. Trump should go beyond the Ukraine affair and also accuse him of obstructing the Russia investigation. Additional evidence, hidden in grand jury files, that Mr. Trump may have lied under oath to Mr. Mueller could bolster the case for an additional article of impeachment, Democratic aides said.
The House lawyer’s statement was also striking because it came shortly after Mr. Trump said he may also be willing to provide written answers about the Ukraine matter to impeachment investigators.
“Even though I did nothing wrong, and don’t like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.
His statement and the hearing, in a case over the House’s attempt to gain access to secret grand jury evidence gathered by Mr. Mueller, came as witnesses and lawmakers jostled for leverage before a new round of impeachment hearings scheduled to begin on Tuesday.
Kurt D. Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine who will appear before lawmakers on Tuesday, planned to testify that he was out of the loop at key moments during Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, according to an account of his prepared testimony.
Democrats conducting the inquiry added to their witness list an official at the American Embassy in Kyiv, David Holmes, who testified privately that he overheard Mr. Trump ask a top diplomat if Ukraine would move forward with investigations he sought. They also released transcripts of depositions by Mr. Holmes and David Hale, the under secretary of state for political affairs, that offered more details about the effort by Trump loyalists to pressure Ukraine for the investigations.
And House Republicans wrote to Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, who attended the inauguration of Ukraine’s president this year, asking him to provide “any firsthand information you have about President Trump’s actions toward Ukraine.”
But the court hearing heightened attention on House Democrats’ longstanding suspicions about Mr. Trump’s responses to questions in the Russia investigation.
The hearing centered on a Federal District Court’s ruling last month that the House should be given access to secret grand jury evidence from the Mueller investigation immediately, and whether enforcement of that ruling should be stayed while the Justice Department’s appeal is fully litigated.
Later on Monday, the appellate panel decided to keep a stay of the lower-court ruling in place “pending further order of the court,” while issuing an expedited briefing schedule with arguments set for Jan. 3.
If the judiciary keeps the stay in place — including for the likely appeals — House Democrats appear unlikely to receive the grand jury evidence before they decide whether to move forward with an impeachment vote.
Still, the argument underscored that they already have evidence calling into question the honesty of Mr. Trump’s responses from the Mueller report and the recently concluded trial of Mr. Trump’s longtime friend and informal adviser Roger J. Stone Jr.
Mr. Trump had refused to let the special counsel’s office interview him. But in his written responses, which were appended to the Mueller report, he denied that he was aware of any communications between his campaign and WikiLeaks.
House lawyers had suggested in a Sept. 30 filing that some of the materials they were seeking bore in on whether Mr. Trump lied about that subject. And on Monday, Douglas Letter, the general counsel for the House, told a federal appeals court panel that impeachment investigators had an “immense” need to swiftly see the grand jury evidence — redacted portions of the Mueller report, as well as the underlying testimony transcripts they came from.
“Was the president not truthful in his responses to the Mueller investigation?” Mr. Letter said, adding, “I believe the special counsel said the president had been untruthful in some of his answers.”
He was referring to congressional testimony in July when Mr. Mueller agreed with a lawmaker’s assertion that the president’s written responses “showed that he wasn’t always being truthful.”
Both the lawmaker in July and Mr. Letter on Monday were referring in particular to the question of whether Mr. Trump lied about his campaign’s advance knowledge of and contacts with WikiLeaks about its possession of hacked Democratic emails and plans to publish them.
Mr. Trump wrote that he was “not aware during the campaign of any communications” between “any one I understood to be a representative of WikiLeaks” and people associated with his campaign. Mr. Stone was convicted last week of lying to congressional investigators about his efforts to reach out to WikiLeaks and his discussions with the campaign.
“I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with him,” Mr. Trump also wrote of Mr. Stone, “nor do I recall being aware of Mr. Stone having discussed WikiLeaks with individuals associated with my campaign.”
But the publicly available portions of the Mueller report suggest that evidence exists to the contrary. Several Trump aides, including Michael D. Cohen and Rick Gates, testified that they heard Mr. Trump discussing coming WikiLeaks releases over the phone.
And in October 2016 Stephen K. Bannon, the campaign chairman, wrote in an email that Mr. Stone had told the campaign “about potential future releases of damaging material” by WikiLeaks shortly before it began publishing more hacked emails.
Mr. Letter brought up redactions in the report associated with Mr. Stone and a redacted reference to an assertion by Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, to a grand jury.
“Manafort said that shortly after WikiLeaks’ July 22, 2016, released of hacked documents, he spoke to Trump [redacted]; Manafort recalled that Trump responded that Manafort should [redacted] keep Trump updated,” the Mueller report said, citing grand jury material as the reason for the redactions.
The report went on to suggest that House investigators may see Mr. Manafort’s grand jury testimony as potentially corroborating Mr. Gates’s account of Mr. Trump’s conversation with Mr. Stone about WikiLeaks.
“Deputy campaign manager Rick Gates said that Manafort was getting pressure about [redacted] information and that Manafort instructed Gates [redacted] status updates on upcoming releases,” the report said, citing an F.B.I. interview with Mr. Gates.
Mr. Letter told the court, “The Manafort situation shows so clearly that there is evidence, very sadly, that the president might have provided untruthful answers,” and added that it “might be part of an impeachment inquiry.”
The Mueller report cited additional evidence from Mr. Gates that Mr. Trump did have discussions about the content or timing of the future release of hacked emails.
For example, Mr. Gates also told investigators that about that same time, he was with Mr. Trump in a car to an airport when Mr. Trump received a call. After something that is redacted in the public version of the report, it recounts that after Mr. Trump hung up, he told Mr. Gates “that more releases of damaging information would be coming,” the report said.
Attorney General William P. Barr permitted the House Judiciary Committee to see most of the Mueller report, including portions that are redacted from the public version because they pertained to continuing cases, but he has refused to let it see material that is subject to secrecy rules because it was presented to a grand jury.
In July, House lawmakers petitioned the chief judge of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, Beryl A. Howell, for an order allowing them to gain access to that material too. Their court filings in that matter were the first time that the House formally pronounced itself engaged in an impeachment inquiry; there is precedent, including in Watergate, permitting the House to get grand jury information for impeachment proceedings.
Judge Howell ruled in October that the Judiciary Committee should be permitted to see the grand jury material in the report and its underlying basis. But the Justice Department appealed that ruling, arguing that the Watergate precedent was wrong and Congress had no right to see grand jury evidence even for impeachment purposes.
The appeals court panel includes Judge Neomi Rao, a former Trump White House official whom he recently appointed to the bench; Judge Judith W. Rogers, a 1994 appointee of President Bill Clinton; and Thomas B. Griffith, a 2005 appointee of President George W. Bush.