Roger Stone was arrested at his Florida home early Friday morning, indicted on seven counts of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing a congressional investigation in the latest twist in the Trump-Russia saga. He was arraigned this morning in a federal court in Fort Lauderdale. The indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller alleges that Stone served as a broker between WikiLeaks and the Trump presidential campaign to disseminate emails that the Russia had purloined from the Democratic National Committee. Stone told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence under oath in September 2017 that he had no e-mails, texts, “no documents whatsoever.” The indictment states, among other things, that this was false.
Stone was never officially part of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, but he has long been an informal political adviser to the president, and he is widely referred to in the media as Trump’s “long-term confidante.” This morning Trump himself tweeted once more to denounce the Mueller investigation and to speculate about why CNN was in place to film the FBI’s arrest of Stone at home: “Greatest Witch Hunt in the History of our Country! NO COLLUSION! Border Coyotes, Drug Dealers and Human Traffickers are treated better. Who alerted CNN to be there?”
This follows Michael Cohen’s postponement of his highly anticipated congressional testimony, citing “ongoing threats against his family” from President Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Cohen, a former attorney and longtime fixer for Trump, has turned on his erstwhile client in a potentially presidency-altering fashion. Might Stone be next?
Stone’s dramatic arrest and Cohen’s allegation of witness tampering come less than a week after a BuzzFeed report claimed that the president directed Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow meeting—a story that Mueller’s office appeared to shoot down in a rare on-the-record denial, while remaining artfully vague about exactly which details were in dispute.
The BuzzFeed episode, Stone’s indictment and the eventual Trump World pushback against Cohen’s latest charges highlight two competing theories about the Mueller probe. Mueller’s office isn’t prone to leaking, so we don’t know the full extent of what the Trump-Russia special counsel knows. This has invited considerable speculation by those who wish to defend or discredit the president.
According to one theory, Mueller is methodically building up to a compelling case that there was Trump-Russia collusion and possibly other illegal acts. We should read little into the fact that Mueller has largely prosecuted people for process crimes or financial transgressions that mostly predate the Trump campaign. The impeachment-inducing bombshell waits just around the corner if only the Resistance remains patient.
There are some rational reasons to believe this might be the case. Although the Stone indictments concern his and Randy Credico’s testimony before the Devin Nunes-led House Intelligence Committee, it puts the Trump campaign (including an unnamed senior official) a step closer to Julian Assange, WikiLeaks and the theft of Democratic emails at the heart of the Russian electoral influence blitz. There have also been tantalizing tidbits about convicted Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort sharing polling data with the Russians, compounding questions about why Manafort took an unpaid senior position with Trump while he was obviously having financial problems and entangled with foreign clients.
But why then didn’t Mueller charge Manafort with anything collusion-related? Why wasn’t anything pertinent to the BuzzFeed bombshell mentioned in the plea agreement with Cohen? Not even Stone was brought in for an underlying offense related to the election. Mueller recommended no jail time for former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos received a fourteen-day jail sentence from which he has already been released. So far, Carter Page hasn’t been charged with anything at all.
If anybody colluded, it would likely have involved the above characters. This leads to the second theory about Mueller’s investigation: that while there is much we don’t know, we can tell a lot from what we’ve seen publicly. Mueller’s indictments up to this point have yet to attempt to make the case that a larger Trump-Russia conspiracy even exists. Indicted Russians were said to have no witting American accomplices; Mueller’s team has yet to go into a courtroom and try to argue that any of their Trump targets committed any crimes related to Russian interference in the presidential election.
Another point often made by those who subscribe to this theory is that if Mueller really had proof of unambiguously impeachment-worthy conduct—like ordering Cohen to lie to Congress or threatening his family before he appeared before a House committee—he would be duty-bound to share this with senior lawmakers rather than leave a lawless president in office as the investigation lingers. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy responded to the former accusation by urging Mueller to speed things up, usually a talking point preferred by Republicans who think the whole affair is a “witch hunt.”
This theory makes a great deal of sense, and it is generally the one this writer follows in terms of not getting ahead of what the evidence says on Trump-Russia. But there are a couple of problems with it that make it premature to conclude that all will end well for the president.
The first is that charges that could lead to the impeachment of the president of the United States are a big deal and thus must be handled carefully. Mueller may not want to tip his hand where the facts are inconclusive, but that may not mean Trump has been exonerated. It’s also now true that Democrats control the house of Congress where articles of impeachment originate and have shown a proclivity to investigate even unconfirmed reports, while there was no guarantee House Republicans would have even acted on Mueller’s recommendations.
This raises the question of whether the Mueller team uncharacteristically disputed BuzzFeed’s Cohen story because it was spectacularly wrong—or because House Democrats were likely to get ahead of themselves and act prematurely. The entire investigation is now proceeding under a very different set of political circumstances.
A bigger problem is the Mueller report itself: the special counsel will be free to allude to things he suspects and for which he may have some evidence but cannot reach the burden of proof required for a criminal conviction. Impeachment itself is a political process, with high crimes and misdemeanors not really defined in the Constitution, meaning that Trump could be imperiled even if his office isn’t the only bar to his being indicted.
Here it is wise to recall the words of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don’t know.”
It’s the unknown unknowns that may determine the course of a presidency.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative magazine.