Former Manhattan federal prosecutor Elie Honig takes a look at what it would take to make Trump adviser and WikiLeaks conduit Roger Stone turn states' evidence against Donald Trump.
So what would it take to turn Roger Stone into a government witness? I see three areas of vulnerability. First, a prosecutor would need to appeal to – perhaps exploit – Stone’s natural sense of self-preservation. For all the trouble he has been mixed up in over his long career, Stone has never been at any real risk of serving time behind bars. Friday’s indictment might change his bearing a bit. It’s one thing to rail publicly against the possibility of a theoretical future indictment, but another to see seven federal criminal charges, carrying a total maximum sentence of 50 years, in black and white. As a practical matter, Stone isn’t looking at anything close to 50 years, but he easily could be facing five years or so if convicted on all counts. For a 66 year-old man like Stone, that could mean most or all of the rest of his life, which has to be at least a bit sobering. And the evidence laid out in the indictment seems locked in; over and over again, the indictment quotes Stone’s lies and then cites hard proof – typically Stone’s own texts – to prove that he lied. A good prosecutor could make a compelling case that cooperation offers Stone his best and most realistic chance to get through the case without having to serve time.
Second, as much as we don’t like to acknowledge it in our quest for pure justice, money matters. It is expensive to defend yourself in federal court, and it is jaw-droppingly costly to go to trial. Stone has flashed vulnerability on this, declaring that he faces legal fees of $2 million – not an outrageous estimate, if a trial is involved – while noting that he is “not a wealthy man” and begging for crowdfunded donations.
Third, Stone is nothing if not ego-driven. We all are, of course, but Stone’s in his own league. A prosecutor might therefore make a pitch to Stone along these lines. You can stay quiet, you can be a “stand-up” guy, you can fight the government and maybe even go to trial. Trump will send nice tweets about you, you’ll have a heavy media following for a couple years, but ultimately you’ll be a strange footnote in history. Or you can flip and be John Dean.
Of course, there’s one trump card – sorry, it’s just the right word – that could override all of this: a presidential pardon. A pardon is the golden ring for Stone. He’d walk free and it costs nothing. Many took Trump’s tweet supporting Stone’s silence as a hint of Trump’s inclination to issue a pardon. Perhaps the best response then is to remind Stone that he’d be taking an awfully big roll of the dice on the generosity of a guy not exactly known for it. Stone knows Trump’s personality: do you think Trump would do a favor for you, I’d ask Stone, if it meant putting himself in one ounce of political jeopardy over the backlash? Trump’s already got enough problems, legal and political, without taking on any more water to protect a far-past-his-prime political brawler.
If Stone somehow did see the light and cooperate, the rewards could be dizzying. If Stone did come clean, imagine what he could deliver. Starting with Friday’s indictment, Stone presumably could identify the “senior Trump Campaign officials” he spoke with about Wikileaks and dissemination of hacked e-mails – including, most tantalizingly, the person who “directed” a “senior Trump Campaign official” to contact Stone about the Wikileaks releases. Stone also could bolster a long-rumored case against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, identified as “the head of Organization-1” in the indictment. And that’s just based on Friday’s indictment, without even getting into Stone’s decades of political rough trade.
Stone remains unlikely to cooperate. But I’ve seen crazier things happen. If a prosecutor played it just right, he just might press the right buttons of self-interest and grandeur necessary to get Stone in the door. And if that happened somehow, Stone would pose a unique threat to Trump and his administration.
Here's the thing though: I think the fact that Mueller delivered a dozen sealed indictments on Thursday along with Stone's (and the only reason we know about Stone is that he was an immediate flight risk) means he's going to make an offer, and yes, we know every other major player Mueller has dropped the hammer on has cooperated in some way.
More arrests are coming, but we're at the point now where there's not a lot of people left above Manafort, Cohen, and Stone. The two people who should be sweating bullets right now are Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. and believe me, both of them know it.