President Donald Trump worries that his lawyer, Michael Cohen, might cut a plea deal and turn against him. But an even greater threat may be creeping up on Trump: Roger Stone.
Although Cohen is considered the keeper of Trump’s most private secrets, Stone has known the president for much longer, and is a self-described dirty trickster with broad knowledge of his personal, business and political histories.
But Stone may also feel limited loyalty to his former boss, with whom he has at times bitterly feuded.
Law enforcement experts say those factors are likely on special counsel Robert Mueller’s mind as he zeroes in on Stone – interviewing his friends, protégés, assistants, and even his ex-drivers. Stone recently said he is “prepared” for a possible indictment in the Russia probe, though he expects it will be unrelated to his work surrounding the 2016 White House race.
The former Richard Nixon campaign aide and longtime Trump political adviser served Trump’s presidential campaign for less than two months in 2015 before leaving in a “You’re fired/I quit” dispute. But he continued as an outside adviser whispering in Trump’s ear. And now Mueller is examining whether Stone had any first-hand knowledge of the Russians who hacked into Democratic email accounts and dished it all up to take down Hillary Clinton.
If the special counsel finds enough to charge Stone, some people who know him well doubt he will stay devoted to a president who has embraced him but also dubbed him a “stone-cold loser.”
“Roger will absolutely jettison his act in order to stay out of harm’s way,” said one longtime friend. “While he really supports the president’s agenda and the president of the United States, he’s not taking a bullet for him. That ain’t happening.”
“They’re very close, but they ain’t that close,” the friend added.
In an interview with POLITICO, Stone said it wouldn’t matter to Trump if Mueller charged him because he and the president have never discussed the Democratic email hacks at the center of the special counsel’s investigation.
“There’s nothing I could tell them that could be damaging to the president,” he said. “I’d have to make it up. That’d be perjury and I’m not going to perjure myself.”
Stone said he has some policy differences with Trump, on issues like medical marijuana and the war in Afghanistan. But he insists he’s not about to toss the president overboard. “He has no reason to be afraid of me,” Stone said. “I’m among his most loyal and steadfast supporters.”
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, shrugged off questions about how Stone’s potential legal liability could cause problems for the president. “He can talk if he wants,” Giuliani said of Stone. “He’s not going to say anything. We’re not worried.”
But the Trump-Stone relationship could be a treasure trove for federal investigators. The men met during Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign and have maintained a professional partnership over the last four decades. Stone has represented Trump as a lobbyist for his gambling, airline, and hotel businesses. He has counseled Trump on four potential White House runs. And in a recent book, Stone writes that Trump told him on New Year’s Day 2013 – more than two years before his official announcement — that he was serious about running for president.
“The best [political adviser] he’s ever had for years and years,” said Charlie Black, a former lobbying partner with Stone and Paul Manafort from the early 1980s. “I doubt there’s many weeks in the last 30 years they haven’t talked.”
“Roger Stone knows everything and what he doesn’t know he knows how to find out,” added a source who has maintained relationships with both men throughout their careers.
Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer, placed Stone in the same category of importance for Mueller as the president’s adult children and son-in-law Jared Kushner, along with longtime Trump Organization employees Cohen, his former body man Keith Schiller and executive assistant Rhona Graff.
“He’s on a super close list of people who Trump really does have to be presumably thinking about,” she said, adding that “the list of people who wouldn’t flip is pretty short. Maybe I should qualify that by saying unless you’re literally in the Mafia.”
But one key difference between Stone and Trump’s devoutly loyal family members and longtime aides is that the South Florida-based political consultant has had multiple high-profile feuds with the president.
In 2008, the men clashed overStone’s behind-the-scenes role uncovering New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s relationship with a prostitute which drove the Democrat out of office. Trump had been friendly with Spitzer’s father, a fellow New York real estate magnate. After Stone denied he had been behind a threatening phone message Bernard Spitzer received that sounded like his voice, Trump said his longtime adviser had been caught “red-handed lying.”
“Roger is a stone-cold loser,” Trump said in a 2008 profile in the New Yorker that detailed their disagreements. “He always tries taking credit for things he never did.”
In 2011, Trump distanced himself from Stone after the operative told POLITICO Trump would self-fund a potential 2012 presidential bid. “I appreciate all of the nice things he’s been saying, but he does not represent me,” Trump retorted. “And he is not an adviser to my potential campaign.”
Perhaps their most public split came a few years later. When Trump finally did launch a White House bid in June 2015, Stone was officially onboard. By mid-August, Stone had been fired — although not before Stone leaked word that he had quit. On Twitter, Stone explained their dispute centered around messaging and Trump’s recent personal attacks on a Fox News debate moderator. Trump, he wrote, “didn’t fire me – I fired Trump.” Stone added he had disagreed with Trump’s “food fight" with Megyn Kelly.
Trump offered a very different version of events to the Washington Post: “I terminated Roger Stone last night because he no longer serves a useful function for my campaign,” he said. “I really don’t want publicity seekers who want to be on magazines or who are out for themselves.”
Even so, the two continued to speak, including a phone call before Trump hired Manafort in March 2016.
“He’s gotten Trump in trouble. He’s gotten Trump out of trouble. He’s made Trump money. He’s lost Trump money. Trump would scream and yell and humiliate and hug him,” said a former Stone colleague and longtime friend.
Stone, who testified for three hours last September before the House Intelligence Committee, said earlier this week that he still hasn’t heard yet from Mueller’s office about an interview. His South Florida-based attorneys also say they’re waiting for the special counsel to reach out.
But there are recent signs that Mueller may be closing in on him: the special counsel’s office has issued subpoenas for John Kakanis, who has worked as Stone’s driver, accountant and political operative; and Jason Sullivan, a Southern California-based consultant who handled social media for Stone’s pro-Trump super PAC during the campaign. Mueller has already interviewed former Stone proteges Michael Caputo and Sam Nunberg, and Stone says at least four other young people who have worked for him were also sought for questioning — or “terrorizing,” as Stone put it for POLITICO.
Law enforcement experts say Mueller faces some unique challenges as he assesses how to handle Stone, a renowned showman with a reputation for stretching the truth. Given Stone’s vehement public denials about being aware in advance of the Democratic hacks, one option would be to first interview him in an informal voluntary setting with an offer of immunity to see what he knows. If Stone refuses to meet with investigators he could also receive a subpoena “to see whether it’s all salesmanship bravado or if it’s the truth,” said former federal prosecutor Gene Rossi.
“If he is telling the truth and he is the brain of Donald Trump and the man behind the curtain, Roger Stone would be a treasure trove of information that would help exonerate the president, or inculpate the president, or somewhere in between,” Rossi said.
Squeezing Stone also has the potential to backfire. The political operative is on speed dial for many reporters and cable television producers, and Stone says he’ll keep talking publicly unless his lawyers stop him. “The danger is in not speaking,” he said. “When you’re silent, people assume you’re guilty of something.”
But Stone is also taking some precautions. Sources say he has designated two friends –Caputo and Tyler Patrick Nixon, a great nephew of the former president – as his spokesmen if he does get put under a court-imposed gag order.
His longtime friends say he’d welcome a high-profile fight with the special counsel and, if he’s allowed, would try to be the kind of witness or defendant who gives play-by-play commentary for the press from the courthouse steps.
“He’d have the time of his life,” Black said. “Roger likes to be the center of attention.”
Stone maintains his innocence in the Russia case, saying he had no first-hand knowledge that Russians were responsible for breaking into the personal email account of top Democratic officials. He insists he was just up to his trademark skullduggery “to punk the Democrats” when he bragged during the campaign that he had contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
“Is there a certain amount of posturing and bluffing? Yes. That’s what we do,” Stone said. “That’s called politics.”
Several Stone friends also insisted he wouldn’t sell out Trump if he faced pressure to flip. Some recall the example of G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixon operative who spent 52 months in prison for his role in the Watergate burglary, but who rejected offers of a lighter sentence in return for testimony implicating Nixon and his senior White House aides.
“He’d make G. Gordon Liddy look like a tower of Jell-o,” said one Trump friend.
“He wants to be a martyr,” another added. “I’ve really seen a transformation during this Trump thing he’s in. He’s out there. He acts crazy. He acts crazier. He threatens. He screams. He’s really like a roller coaster. And that’s why I think he’ll go for the history books as the guy who’d walk the plank and then have a podcast from the penitentiary.”