WASHINGTON (CN) – In a stunning layout of the events prosecutors aim to prove transpired at the highest levels of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, the Justice Department told a federal jury that Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone lied to Congress about his communications with WikiLeaks in order to protect the president.
“Roger Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee because the truth looked bad. The truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Zelinsky said.
The trial, derailed by medical issues during jury selection Tuesday, is drawing the 2016 election back into the spotlight – one year out from the 2020 election. Spectators seated in the courtroom included Michael Caputo, who worked on the 2016 Trump campaign, and alt-right activist Milo Yiannopolous.
The Justice Department attorney told the jury of 11 women and three men that Stone lied under oath to Congress, at the time investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Stone has pleaded not guilty to that charge as well as obstruction of justice and witness tampering charges.
Zelinsky said in his more than hour-long opening statement that Stone, via back channels, communicated with WikiLeaks head Julian Assange. The Justice Department will rely on a trove of texts and emails that Stone did not disclose to Congress to prove its case.
“Roger Stone did not want that information to see the light of day because it would have unraveled the other lies he told,” Zelinsky said.
On July 25, 2016, Stone emailed Jerome Corsi – who spread the false claim that President Barack Obama was born outside the U.S. – to dispatch the conspiracy theorist to London to make contact with Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy.
Zelinsky showed the jury an email Corsi sent Stone days later informing the defendant WikiLeaks had “dumps coming,” to release emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee.
“That appears to be the game hackers are now about,” Corsi said on Aug. 2, 2016.
In the weeks that followed, Zelinsky said, Stone “proclaimed over and over and over again that he was in contact with WikiLeaks” – and made contact with Trump and his closest associates, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
In an email to Bannon, Stone said on Aug. 18, 2016: “Trump can still win — but time is running out.”
The Justice Department on Wednesday also confirmed the worst kept secret of the trial: Bannon will testify.
On Wednesday afternoon, the government called its first witness, former FBI agent Michelle Taylor, who, like Zelinsky, served on former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team. During her testimony Taylor dissected phone records showing Stone also made repeated calls to Trump in the weeks bookending the WikiLeaks dumps.
But Stone’s attorney Bruce Rogow said during his opening statements that the jury should focus not on the defendant’s words but on his state of mind.
Stone did not “act with evil purpose” when he testified to Congress, Rogow said, but instead stuck to the parameters laid out by the committee. “The fact that it was a Russian investigation colored all of his answers,” Rogow said.
“I understand that the government has morphed this into something,” the defense attorney later added. “But what is critical here is what was in his mind when he was answering these questions.”
Stone was not subpoenaed by the committee but voluntarily testified, Rogow emphasized.
“I think the evidence will show that’s not the usual way that people go to a committee – certainly if they are intending to lie,” he said.
In the days to come, the Justice Department will also present evidence aimed at proving Stone threatened radio host Randy Credico – a witness in Mueller’s investigation – and is therefore guilty of witness tampering.
Stone had testified to Congress that it was Credico, and not Corsi, who served as his go-between to Assange. Stone, federal prosecutors told the jury Wednesday, feared Credico would set the record straight.
While U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson blocked a request from the Justice Department to screen a clip from “The Godfather Part II,” Zelinsky dove into the reference Stone made to the mafia film in communications the federal prosecutors say are evidence Stone pressured Credico not to comply with a subpoena to testify before the House Intelligence Committee.
Stone urged Credico to “do his Frank Pentangeli,” conjuring a scene where a character in the film feigns he knows nothing about his criminal boss when testifying to a congressional committee.
“Because of Trump I could never get away with asserting my Fifth Amendment right but you can,” Stone texted Credico on Dec. 1, 2017.
Rogow said the references to Pentangeli were nothing more than a “continuing dialogue” in a relationship he described as “strange,” and said Credico “does impressions of various people including Pentangeli.”
In a case that will rise and fall on how the jury interprets the texts between Stone and other key actors, the Justice Department displayed another thread of messages from Jan. 25, 2018, between Stone and his alleged WikiLeaks intermediary.
“Waste of your time–tell him to go fuck himself,” Stone texted.
“Who?” Credico messaged back.
“Mueller,” Stone replied.
Rogow described the “hundreds, maybe thousands of texts” between Stone and Credico as “crude” and “not easy to read.” But he said they clearly show it was Stone who was played by Credico, and not the reverse. Both men engaged in “political machinations” as they sought to elevate their value to the Trump campaign, the defense attorney told the jury.
“There was no intermediary between Mr. Stone and Julian Assange,” Rogow said. “It’s made up stuff.”
But evidence presented during Taylor’s testimony outlined routine communication between Stone and Corsi about WikiLeaks in August 2016.
“Julian Assange has kryptonite on Hillary,” Corsi told Stone in an email sent Aug. 22, 2016.
The Justice Department said testimony from Credico will further prove the government’s case.
“You will hear that Roger Stone sought to cover up that Jerome Corsi was his back channel and instead that he tried to pin everything on Randy Credico,” Zelinsky said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kravis asked Taylor, the FBI agent, to read off a series of texts that the Justice Department hopes will lock in the argument that Stone pressured Credico not to testify.
Reading Stone’s text, the witness said: “Don’t be a pussy.”