Roger Stone Trial Will Put Mueller Report Back in Spotlight

Roger Stone, a longtime confidant of President Donald Trump charged in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, arrives to federal court in Washington with his wife, Nydia Stone, on July 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Roger Stone flashed no double V-shaped hand signs on Monday when he arrived at D.C. federal court, a gesture he frequently uses to invoke the memory of the late President Richard Nixon.

Stone’s jury trial is set to kick off on Tuesday. While President Donald Trump battles to avoid a Watergate fate, his longtime friend and adviser will be fighting to get out from under charges he lied to Congress, obstructed justice and engaged in witness tampering.

In a pretrial conference Monday, Stone sat sullenly in a black suit with a black tie. While the impeachment inquiry upending Washington centers on possible misconduct by Trump in dealings with Ukraine, Stone’s trial promises to shift Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the WikiLeaks hack back into the spotlight.

The closely watched trial could blow open the report from former special counsel Robert Mueller. Sections riddled with HOM, or “harm to ongoing matters,” tantalizingly appear to make reference to Stone.

One such section describes Trump in a car en route to LaGuardia Airport – along with Rick Gates, who will testify against Stone as a cooperating government witness – conversing with an unnamed caller about the possible release of Hillary Clinton emails by WikiLeaks.

“And shortly after the call ended, Trump told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming,” volume II of the Mueller report states.

A line just after the account of the mysterious caller states: “‘Harm to Ongoing Matter’ were discussed within the Campaign, and in the summer of 2016, the Campaign was planning a communications strategy based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks.”

Trump in written responses to Muller’s team denied any knowledge of the WikiLeaks hack of the Democratic National Committee and July 2016 release of documents that many argue turned the tide in his favor. But Stone’s trial could shed light on the heavily redacted sections of the special counsel’s report, further complicating impeachment proceedings if it reveals Trump in fact lied to Mueller.

Many high-profile witnesses are expected to step into the witness box, among them former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

The witness list remains sealed until the trial gets underway. But on Monday morning, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in the pretrial conference questioned whether secrecy was necessary given media reports that Bannon would testify.

“Can I talk about this in open court at this point?” the Barack Obama appointee asked, adding:  “I have seen articles about it.”

Still referring to Bannon as “the witness,” Jackson took up disputes between the two parties over how his cross-examination will play out.

Stone’s attorney Bruce Rogow assured Jackson he would comply with instructions to not touch on Bannon’s role in the White House, or on Trump’s transition team in the months leading up to the inauguration.

But Rogow informed the judge he may want to question Bannon on more recent activities.

“When credibility is at stake, I think it’s important that we have that latitude,” Rogow said, adding that he seeks to question the former White House adviser on “actions taken that we think may be inconsistent with what he is going to say in his direct testimony.”

Jackson said defense attorneys are not permitted to drag a witness’ entire life into questions. “I don’t know what transpired after the election that could be relevant in this case,” the judge added.

Addressing disputes over Stone’s legal team looking to submit as evidence appendices from the Mueller report, Jackson warned the parties to not wander outside the scope of the charges.

“We are not trying the investigation. We are not trying the hacking,” she said. “None of that is relevant.”

The judge later added that she has already ruled that any such arguments are not relevant to the trial. “If you go there anyway in your openings or your questions, I will stop you,” she said.

Stone has repeatedly clashed with Jackson in the months leading up to his trial. Known in Washington to be a wily political operative, he repeatedly violated a gag order in an apparent attempt to spur media coverage of his trial.

The judge compared Stone’s behavior to a disobedient middle schooler, flat out banning him from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. On Monday, she reminded Stone, a self-proclaimed “dirty trickster,” that the trial will be closely watched by the public.

“You should always assume that the microphone on that table is live … so just be cautious about that,” Jackson said to Stone and his attorneys seated at the defense table.

Looking to tame drama already swirling around the upcoming trial, the judge earlier this month rejected a government request to submit a clip from “The Godfather Part II” as evidence.

But Jackson said she would entertain a renewed request during trial, after the cross-examination of radio host Randy Credico – a witness in Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election – or after Stone takes the witness stand. The government has accused Stone of witness tampering involving Credico and will present communications between the two men in which Stone makes repeated reference to the mafia film’s character Frank Pentangeli.

But Stone’s attorneys raised concern over the government describing the clip, in which Pentangeli feigns ignorance to criminal operations when testifying to a congressional committee after mafia boss Michael Corleone enters the room with Pentangeli’s brother in tow.

“Now you have the government basically standing behind the ‘Godfather’ transcript and in a sense explaining the ‘Godfather’ transcript and I just think that’s a terrible mistake,” Rogow said. In court documents, Stone’s attorneys have raised alarm that the clip would improperly frame their client as a mafia boss.

Jackson reminded Rogow that she previously requested both parties offer up a “vanilla description” of the scene that could be provided to the jury. The movie clip will be described to the jury, she said, in the “least sensational way possible.”

The trial will start Tuesday with jury selection followed by opening statements on Wednesday. It is expected to last two weeks.

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