WASHINGTON (CN) — Steve Bannon testified in federal court Friday that Roger Stone was the Trump campaign’s only inroad to WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential election.
The former White House chief strategist made no secret of the fact that his highly anticipated appearance at Stone’s criminal trial was forced by subpoena.
“I have been compelled to testify,” he said at the outset. He was in and out of the witness box in under an hour.
The high-profile witness clad in a rumpled black shirt and black jacket at first told the Washington jury that the campaign did not lock in a point of access to WikiLeads head Julian Assange.
But pressed by the Justice Department attorney — reading Bannon’s statement to a grand jury that “it was generally believed that the access point or the potential access point to WikiLeaks” was Stone — Bannon began laying out how he communicated every few weeks with the defendant as polls in summer 2016 foretold a loss for Trump.
By then, Trump’s team was desperate to make up ground on the campaign trail, Bannon said.
“When you are this far behind you have to use every tool in the tool box,” Bannon testified — including “dirty tricks.”
Stone has pleaded not guilty to lying to Congress about his ties to WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential election, along with witness tampering and obstruction of justice charges.
On Aug. 18, 2016 Stone emailed Bannon that “Trump can still win — but time is running out.”
Reminding the campaign CEO that early voting started up in six weeks, Stone in the same email said, “I do know how to win this but it ain’t pretty.”
Bannon delivered a less than bombshell account of the events that transpired in the lead up to Election Day. But his testimony locked in that Stone was the only link he maintained to Assange.
Stone’s attorney sought to pull Bannon into testifying that the WikiLeaks information from Stone was only marginally important to the campaign.
“It’s your job to distinguish reality from fantasy if you will?” defense attorney Robert Buschel said.
“That’s correct,” Bannon replied.
But the defense attorney landed no substantial blows to the government’s case during the cross-examination.
“As you sit here today you don’t think that Roger Stone had any inside knowledge or predictions from WikiLeaks?” Buschel said.
The question triggered an objection from the Justice Department. “Sustained,” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said immediately.
Back at the lectern, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Marando revisited an email Bannon sent Stone on Oct. 4, 2016 when a WikiLeaks press conference did not play out. The attorney asked Bannon why he emailed Stone when the expected announcement on the release of emails hacked from the Hillary Clinton campaign never surfaced.
“Was that reason that he was the access point?” Marando asked under redirect. But the Justice Department’s question set off an objection from the defense.
“Why did you write to Stone in particular at 9:25 that morning, what was that?” Judge Jackson rephrased the question.
“Because Roger was the guy that had told me he knew WikiLeaks and Julian Assange,” Bannon said.
Testifying that Stone was a political provocateur, Bannon echoed the common portrait of the defendant as a practitioner of underhanded tricks, spelled out in testimony from radio show host Randy Credico Friday morning.
Under combative cross-examination, Credico dropped his comedic flare, testifying that he was desperate to get out from under a bombardment of nasty stories, emails and texts from the longtime Trump adviser to block Credico from testifying to Congress.
“I can’t work on his level. He plays hardball. He throws a lot of junk and I did not want to get hit,” Credico said.
Credico consistently denied that he ever served as a go-between and rebuffed accusations from Stone’s attorneys that he led the defendant to believe that he had inside access to Assange.
“So when Mr. Stone got the information that you were an intermediary, that you were a go-between, you played him didn’t you?” Stone’s attorney, Buschel, said.
Credico denied the accusation, telling the attorney he shared misleading information about ties to Assange “to get Roger Stone off my back, my friend.”
Pressing the witness, Buschel was combative, the two men often tangling questions and answers in a back and forth that spiraled into courtroom dust-ups.
Judge Jackson repeatedly reprimanded the attorney for arguing with the witness and instructed Buschel to ask specific questions, with time frames, when referencing texts and emails Stone and Credico exchanged over the years.
Federal prosecutors asked Credico to read aloud the communications that show Stone pressuring him not to testify to Congress.
“You are so full of S-H-I-T.,” Credico said, opting to spell out rather than read aloud the expletive in the text from Stone. “You got nothing. Keep running your mouth and I’ll file a bar complaint against your friend Margaret.”
The Margaret who Stone mentioned in the Dec. 1, 2017 messages is Margaret Kunstler. Credico described the woman who helped him schedule an on-the-air interview with Assange as a “very close friend.” But he denied that Kunstler served as a lawyer to Assange.
From the witness stand, Kunstler offered a slightly different take on her relationship to WikiLeaks when asked by the Justice Department if she ever represented Assange.
“Only to the extent that I represented WikLeaks,” she said. “So it overlaps — but technically I don’t know.”
Credico told the jury during his testimony that his one outreach to Kunstler on Stone’s behalf was a purposely weak attempt — an email sent to her AOL account that Credico testified he knew the attorney friend was unlikely to come across because she rarely checked the account.
“CAN YOU FIND OUT FROM JA IF THERE IS A State or HRC e-mail from August 10 to August 30 –particularly on August 20, 2011 that mention Dr. R.K. Paul or confirm this narrative,” Credico emailed Kunstler on Sep. 20, 2016. Blind copied on the message is Stone’s account, email@example.com.
Kunstler saw the message but testified Friday that she never sought out the information from Assange for Credico. She never possessed information on the Democratic National Convention or Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, the witness testified, and Credico did not send further requests.
Testifying that he was desperate to keep Stone from targeting Kunstler — “I didn’t want to drag her through this…she’s lived a quiet life” — Credico said he kept up communications with Stone into 2018.
“That was the crux of it,” he testified.
The threat from his Stone’s indictment that riled public attention was directed not at Kunstler, but at Credico’s small fluffy Coton de Tulear named Bianca. The therapy dog was by his side when Credico appeared to testify to a grand jury in Stone’s case.
“I am going to take that dog away from you and there’s nothing you can do about it…because you are a weak ass piece of S-H-I-T. I will prove to the world you are a liar,” Credico said reading a text Stone sent him in April 2017.
But asked by Stone’s attorney if the defendant is a dog lover, Credico admitted he did not take that particular threat seriously.
“I know he would have never touched that dog. So it was hyperbole by him,” Credico said.
Stone’s attorney also picked up Credico’s statement that there were a “thousand reasons why” he chose to assert his Fifth Amendment right to avoid testifying to the House Intelligence Committee.
Credico said Stone was one of those reasons. The public statement that the House investigation into Russian interference was a “witch hunt,” Credico testified, was a defense play.
But when special counsel Robert Mueller issued him a subpoena, Credico was eager to come clear.
“I was very frustrated at this time,” Credico said, explaining that he had been labeled Stone’s back channel to WikiLeaks in public discourse. “People extrapolate that you are hiding something.”
Credico testified time and again that he was only a spectator in the WikiLeaks upheaval.
Justice Department attorney Aaron Zelinsky asked under redirect, in reference to the many texts and email submitted as evidence, if Credico ever told Stone that he was not his back channel.
“Endlessly, yes,” Credico said.
The prosecutor looked to mentions of a back channel to Assange that Credico made in communications to Stone from 2016 to 2018. “Sir, all of those references to Roger Stone’s back channel, sir were those references to yourself?”
The witness testified they were not — holding firm to a foundational defense he asserted under cross examination.
“I still will imply to this court that I was never a back channel to Julian Assange,” Credico said under oath. “I never was.”