On May 11th Roger Stone, Donald Trump’s on-again, off-again political adviser for several decades, had just wrapped up a pair of morning television appearances when, according to two sources with direct knowledge, he received a call from the President.
Just a night earlier, Trump claimed that he was no longer in touch with Stone. In the weeks and months ahead, the relationship between Trump and Stone is expected to be a significant focus of investigators, and their call raises an important question: Why is the President still reaching out to figures in the middle of the Russia investigations? Previous reports have noted that Trump has also been in touch with Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, two figures targeted by the F.B.I.’s Russia probe. Add Stone to the list of former top Trump aides who, despite being under investigation, are still winning attention from the President.
Last year, Stone said that he had a “back channel” to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and less than two months before the site dumped thousands of e-mails stolen from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, Stone tweeted, “Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.” In subsequent months, Stone has backed away from any claims that he knew what was coming, but his seeming prescience about the Podesta hack has earned him a spot at the top of the witness lists of the congressional committees investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“Is it a coincidence that Roger Stone predicted that John Podesta would be a victim of a Russian hack and have his private e-mails published and did so even before Mr. Podesta himself was fully aware that his private e-mails would be exposed?” Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, asked at a March hearing. At this hearing, James Comey, then the F.B.I. director, confirmed publicly the existence of the Bureau’s separate probe, which is also reportedly looking into Stone’s role in last year’s hack.
On May 9th, Trump fired Comey. Stone’s role in advising Trump on the abrupt dismissal of the person investigating the President’s campaign and advisers, including Stone himself, immediately became a subject of intrigue.
CNN reported that Stone “was among those who recommended to the President that he fire Comey,” a potentially explosive revelation that was also reported by Politico. Firing the F.B.I. director, according to several legal scholars, could be obstruction of justice. This made it worse. The President of the United States was not just talking to one of the subjects of the F.B.I. probe but also, if the CNN and Politico reports were accurate, colluding with Stone to terminate the head of the investigation. Trump quickly tried to contain the damage.
“The Roger Stone report on @CNN is false – Fake News,” he tweeted. “Have not spoken to Roger in a long time – had nothing to do with my decision.”
Stone himself was more circumspect. “I am not the source of Politico/CNN stories claiming I urged @realDonaldTrump 2 fire Comey,” he tweeted. “Never made such claim. I support decision 100%.” As for Trump’s claim that the two men haven’t spoken “in a long time,” Stone insisted they had actually spoken “fairly recently.”
Stone is famously eager to be at the center of political high jinks. While other figures who have come to the F.B.I.’s attention, such as Manafort, Flynn, and Jared Kushner, have retreated from the press, and, in the case of Flynn, refused to testify, Stone has repeatedly proclaimed that he’s anxious to share his story. Stone, a coxcomb who occasionally texts reporters pictures of outfits he’s particularly proud of, no doubt already has his congressional-testimony suit picked out.
It was no surprise, then, that the day after Trump denied any contact with Stone, the adviser was on TV responding to the questions swirling around Comey’s firing and his own role in it.
On the “Today” show, Matt Lauer asked, “Did you have a conversation with him where you said, ‘By the way, this guy needs to go?’ ” Stone did not answer directly. “I’m not going to characterize any conversation I’ve had with the President on this subject or any other,” he said. “I do think he needed to go. I think the President did the right thing. I think he has become—he became unaccountable.”
On CNN’s “New Day,” Chris Cuomo noted, “You have said many times” that “you are in regular contact with the President.” Stone clarified, “I think I said ‘occasionally.’ I don’t speak to him every day. Donald Trump is his own man.”
Stone, like Trump, is a showman. He seems to want to leave the impression that he has more access and influence with the White House than he actually does. The fact that he is at the center of the congressional and F.B.I. probes may simply be the result of Stone’s own exaggerations about his connections to Assange last year.
Talk this week of a White House staff shakeup is a reminder that advisers are disposable in Trump’s universe. Stone has not formally worked for Trump since the first half of 2015. As Stone himself is fond of saying, Trump goes through three phases in his cycle of finding and discarding top political aides: Who is he? Get me him! Who was he? But there is also a fourth phase for many aides who are cast aside. They wait in the outer ring of Trump’s circle—a sort of Trump-adviser Purgatory—for the moment when he inevitably becomes dissatisfied with his current aides and reaches out to the old ones. This phenomenon is clear in the numerous reports over the last two weeks that Trump is recruiting former aides—Corey Lewandowski, David Bossie, Sam Nunberg, David Urban—to help save his foundering White House.
“He values your advice more when he is NOT paying for it,” one former adviser said, in a text message.
Part of being a Trump adviser is to constantly put up with Trump’s abuse and willingness to attack or publicly undercut you. Nunberg, for example, was sued by Trump last year, and yet he remains loyal, sending strategy memos to the White House and making the case for the President publicly. “I worked for the President for four and half years,” Nunberg told me. “There were ups and downs. It could have ended better. Regardless, when I see this witch hunt against his Administration and Presidency, I will help in any capacity to fight back.”
Stone has been through this cycle many times over. As Stone left the studio on May 11th, the President, who the evening before had essentially pretended not to know him anymore, had a simple message: good job.
But, aside from contradicting Trump’s claim of not talking to Stone, the call is unusual for another reason. “The conventional wisdom is that when someone has exposure to obstruction-of-justice liability, as Trump certainly does, he should avoid unnecessary reaching out to others involved in the investigation, lest he make things worse for himself,” Norman Eisen, the ethics counsel in the Obama White House, said. “But Trump is famously unorthodox. Indeed, that is how he got into this mess in the first place.”
He added, “Trump just added another item to the investigators’ checklist.”