Minutes into the trial, prosecutors linked the charges against Stone directly to Trump, citing phone records that showed the two talking at key moments.
“We are here today because one man obstructed Congress’s investigation,” prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky told the jury of nine women and three men at the federal courthouse in Washington.
“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,” Zelinsky said.
The prosecutor told the jury that on the evening of June 14, 2016 — the day the Democratic National Committee announced its computer system had been hacked — Stone called then-candidate Trump. In late July, after the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks began releasing hacked DNC material, Stone again called Trump, for a 10-minute call.
Prosecutors do not know what the two discussed but “about an hour after that call that Roger Stone had with then-candidate Trump, Roger Stone sent another email,” Zelinksy said, asking a friend in London to try to contact WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange.
The prosecutor urged jurors to focus on Stone’s conduct, not the broader controversies still swirling around the 2016 election.
“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,” said Zelinksy, a former Mueller team prosecutor. “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.”
Stone, 67, has pleaded not guilty to felony charges of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering in connection with efforts to gather information about Democratic Party emails prosecutors say were stolen by Russia during the 2016 campaign and released through WikiLeaks.
Stone, a longtime Trump adviser and political consultant, was charged in January in a seven-count indictment. Prosecutors contend he lied on several points: when he told the House Intelligence Committee in September 2017 that he did not have texts or emails about his 2016 discussions surrounding WikiLeaks; said that he had only one associate who tried to act as a go-between with Assange; and claimed he never spoke to anyone in the Trump campaign about WikiLeaks’ plans.
Zelinksy said Stone told those lies because if Congress had learned of his many emails and texts about the quest to learn what WikiLeaks had on Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, “it would have unraveled all of the other lies Roger Stone told.”
The prosecutor also pointed to an Aug. 3, 2016, email Stone sent then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, seeking to speak to him.
When Manafort asked why, Stone emailed back, “To save Trump’s a–. Call me please.” Manafort was convicted last year of unrelated financial crimes and is currently in prison.
In that critical summer 2016 time period after WikiLeaks began releasing hacked data, Stone emailed Trump campaign strategist Stephen K. Bannon, Zelinsky told the jury.
“Trump can still win, but time is running out,” Stone wrote to Bannon. “I know how to win, but it ain’t pretty,” Zelinsky said, showing jurors the email on their computer screens and suggesting Stone was alluding to WikiLeaks.
The trial before Judge Amy Berman Jackson is expected to last about two weeks.
A trove of Stone’s communications with Trump insiders including exchanges with Bannon, Manafort, and Manafort deputy Rick Gates likely will figure prominently in the case. The trial overall could offer a sharper look at the eagerness of some in Trump’s orbit to find damaging information to derail Clinton’s presidential run.
Stone, a self described “agent provocateur” of American conservative politics, has said any misstatements he made were unintentional and that he is a victim of politically motivated attacks against the president. Stone first met Trump in the 1980s and had encouraged him to run for the White House since the 1990s.
The defense team led by Bruce S. Rogow disputes the legitimacy of Mueller’s investigation. But in pretrial hearings, they failed in attempts to challenge the special counsel’s central finding that Moscow had a primary role in “sweeping and systemic” cyber-interference in the 2016 election, including hacking and releasing emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman, John Podesta, among others.
Rogow has not said if Stone would testify in his own defense, but left open that possibility.
Prosecutors have said their first witness will be the former lead FBI agent in the case, Michelle Taylor.
Jackson, a 2011 Obama appointee, has rejected Stone’s claims that he was selectively prosecuted, saying he had only himself to blame for coming under investigation for his alleged lies after taking public credit for the WikiLeaks release and suggesting he had inside information about more to come.
Ultimately, Mueller did not charge anyone associated with Trump’s campaign of working with Russia or WikiLeaks to release stolen information, and Mueller’s report did not accuse anyone of having advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans.
The witness tampering charge against Stone stems from Stone’s alleged attempt to persuade a witness who also was to testify before the congressional panel to say falsely either that he was an intermediary for contacts with WikiLeaks or could not recall anything he had said to Stone.
Stone was put under a court gag order that bars him from commenting about the case or prosecutors after his repeated social media postings attacking his indictment, the conduct of federal agents and intelligence agencies, actions that the judge said before trial might impair the ability to seat an impartial jury. Stone’s Instagram account also had shown a photograph of Jackson’s face next to what appeared to be the crosshairs of a gun scope.