October 20, 2020

What Trump Wants From Roger Stone

Roger J. Stone Jr. made it no secret that he was desperate for President Trump to commute his 40-month prison sentence for impeding a congressional inquiry and other crimes.

But what finally persuaded Mr. Trump to commute his sentence and set him free? Why would the president, who unabashedly prioritizes his self-interest, subject himself to a public relations hit and return the public’s attention to the Russia probe?

The answer may lie in their four-decades-long relationship. From the beginning, their union has been like a tempestuous marriage with frequent spats and breakups.

Since the mid-1980s, Mr. Stone has served as Mr. Trump’s personal political guru. He shaped Mr. Trump’s approach to politics according to maxims he calls “Stone’s Rules,” ingraining now all-too-familiar tactics such as “Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack.”

It was Mr. Stone who, back in 1987, urged Mr. Trump to seek the presidency, and who pushed him thereafter to do it. But until the 2016 cycle, Mr. Trump treated the possibility as little more than a publicity stunt. When Mr. Trump did finally decide to run, Mr. Stone laid the groundwork for the campaign by leading the small team that quietly introduced the candidate to the conservative grass-roots activists who would become his base.

But barely a month after the campaign was officially announced, Mr. Trump fired Mr. Stone — or, if you believe Mr. Stone’s version, he quit — in part for seeking too much attention. However, as always, the two reconciled.

And Mr. Trump went back to his frequent phone consultations with Mr. Stone, only this time Mr. Stone was an unofficial, unpaid adviser.

Since Mr. Stone was convicted in November on charges stemming from the Mueller investigation, it always seemed just a matter of time before Mr. Trump intervened on his behalf. Mr. Stone and his supporters, like the Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, shrewdly cast his prosecution as an extension of Mr. Trump’s persecution by the so-called “Russia hoax,” thus making Mr. Stone’s case all about Mr. Trump. Mr. Stone also publicly pledged never to flip on Mr. Trump, despite what he claimed was enormous pressure from the prosecutors to cooperate.

ImageRoger Stone in November, after he was found guilty of obstructing a congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

A number of commentators have speculated that Mr. Trump’s commutation was simply his part in a tacit quid pro quo. But even though Mr. Trump slammed the prosecution and sent increasingly unambiguous signals about what he might be planning, Mr. Stone had little leverage to force the president to reciprocate his loyalty. Mr. Stone’s weak hand is evident by the way Mr. Trump left him dangling for months, as mounting legal fees pushed him into a deeper financial hole.

So why did President Trump finally act? He was certainly prompted by Mr. Stone’s impending date with prison on Tuesday, but his own re-election prospects also likely played a part. When Mr. Stone was convicted in November, Mr. Trump was facing a close race with Joe Biden among likely voters in battleground states. Today, fewer than four months until Election Day, the polls point to a possible landslide defeat for Mr. Trump.

The stakes in 2020 are far higher for Mr. Trump than they were in 2016. Back then, few expected him to win, including Mr. Stone. (We were filming him on the morning of Election Day, when he told us that he had just registered ImpeachHillary.org.) And because of the global fame Mr. Trump had amassed as the Republican nominee, any result was a win for him.

This time if he is defeated, he will suffer global humiliation.

President Trump has reportedly lashed out at his re-election team for his floundering campaign. As he seeks to right the ship, Mr. Trump would surely want to turn to Mr. Stone, whose political acumen he has trusted for nearly 40 years and who has far more experience in presidential campaigns than anyone else in the president’s inner circle.

It wouldn’t be the first time Mr. Stone rescued a Trump campaign from disaster, beyond whatever Mr. Stone’s involvement was with WikiLeaks. When Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign careered after the “Access Hollywood” tape revealed his crude remarks about women, Mr. Stone sprang into action. During the second debate between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton, Mr. Stone helped orchestrate an indelible moment: Sitting in the front row were several women who had accused President Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct. The scene rattled Ms. Clinton and muddied the scandal.

After all they’ve been through together, it’s fitting that Mr. Stone and Mr. Trump have arrived simultaneously at a moment of great need. Mr. Trump has now rescued Mr. Stone, but can Mr. Stone return the favor?

Mr. Stone has been through a damaging legal struggle, and it’s not clear whether his arsenal of dirty tricks can work anymore. While Mr. Stone once worked his dark arts from the shadows, his adversaries are now on to him. He is superb at creating inflammatory spectacle to gin up publicity, but what good is that talent during a pandemic? He is expert at manipulating people via social media, but he’s been banned from virtually every major platform, and Facebook just exposed and deleted his clandestine network of fake accounts. He is a master of riling up the base, but Mr. Trump’s core problem is reaching out to moderates.

There’s even an off-chance that Mr. Stone doesn’t want back into the fray. He says he has found Jesus.

But far more likely, Roger Stone hasn’t just been set free — he has been unleashed.

Mr. Pehme, Mr. DiMauro and Mr. Bank wrote and directed the 2017 Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone.”

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