WASHINGTON - Roger Stone wasn't lying to Congress about his contact with WikiLeaks over stolen emails that helped Donald Trump win the presidency, his lawyer told a jury at the start of the longtime Republican operative's criminal trial.
He just didn't understand the questions.
It's the context in which those questions were asked - and how Stone understood it - that will prove he's not guilty, defense attorney Bruce Rogow told the jurors in Washington on Wednesday.
Stone thought the House Intelligence Committee, which questioned him for more than 2 1/2 hours in September of 2017, was asking about Russian interference in the presidential election and any U.S. political-party involvement in that meddling, since that was the stated scope of its investigation, Rogow told the jury.
This was Stone's frame of mind as he told the committee about his communications with WikiLeaks and the tens of thousands of hacked emails released to damage the campaign of Trump's rival, Hillary Clinton.
"We think the evidence will show that there was no corrupt intent in whatever was said or done by Mr. Stone," Rogow said.
The argument seemed to approach one U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson has repeatedly warned the defense off of - putting Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe on trial.
"We are not here to try Russian collusion," Rogow said, perhaps in a nod to that warning. "What we're talking about here is his belief, his state of mind, that the Russians did not collude with him or the campaign."
Rogow disputed the government's contention that Stone used intermediaries to glean secret intelligence ahead of time from WikiLeaks, saying instead that his client's famous tweets and other predictions were based on publicly available information. He told the court that both Stone and radio host Randy Credico were inflating their importance by pretending their inside dope was better than it was.
"It's made-up stuff," Rogow said of the go-betweens. "Mr. Stone said these things, but he was playing others" by creating the notion that he had a line in to WikiLeaks.
The first witness was a former FBI agent named Michelle Taylor who was one of Mueller's investigators, who testified about records showing phone calls between Stone and Trump. Through her, prosecutor Jonathan Kravis introduced a series of text and email messages. They appeared to undercut Rogow's claim that Stone didn't try to contact WikiLeaks and its principal Julian Assange through intermediaries Credico and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi.
Stone, 67, is accused of lying to the House committee about his communications over the hacked emails, which the U.S. believes Russia stole from Democratic Party computers to tip the election to Trump. He is also charged with obstructing the committee's probe and threatening a witness, Credico, to prevent him from contradicting his story. Stone was indicted in January, the last man charged in Mueller's investigation.
The trial comes at a time of increasing political peril for the president, who faces possible impeachment for tying $391 million in aid for Ukraine to its willingness to investigate a Trump rival, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, and his son Hunter's work for a Ukrainian energy company. Those allegations against Trump are not part of Stone's trial.
Earlier Wednesday, prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky told the jury Stone lied about his efforts to help "longtime friend" Trump win "because the truth looked bad. The truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump."
Steve Bannon, who like Paul Manafort led the Trump campaign for a time, will be among the government's witnesses, Zelinsky told the panel, as will Credico. Stone messaged Bannon during the campaign to tell him time was running out and that he knew how to win, Zelinsky told the jurors.
"But it ain't pretty," Zelinsky said Stone told Bannon.
On the day the Democratic National Committee announced it had been hacked in 2016, Stone called Trump, Zelinsky told the jury. Later, after WikiLeaks had made the first of its massive email dumps against the Clinton campaign, Stone "started bragging that he was in contact with WikiLeaks," the prosecutor said.
Then, on July 31 of that year, he said, Stone called Trump again.
"We do know that they spoke for approximately 10 minutes on candidate Trump's personal line," Zelinsky told the panel. About an hour after that call, he said, Stone emailed Corsi that a friend of theirs living in London should see Assange.
"Word is, friend in embassy plans two more dumps" that would be "very damaging," Corsi wrote back, according to Zelinsky.
Stone emailed Manafort, an old friend, in early August to say he had an idea "to save Trump's ass," Zelinsky told the jurors, and Manafort called him.
It is these communications that the U.S. alleges Stone lied to Congress about.
The most serious charge facing Stone is tampering with Credico, whom Stone warned to "do a Frank Pentangeli," Zelinsky told the jury, a reference to the "Godfather II" character who falsely claims not to recall crucial information sought by Congress. Credico didn't want to do that, the prosecutor said, so Stone got him "to clam up."
On Jan 25, 2018, during the Mueller probe, Stone told Credico to tell Mueller to "go f - _ himself," Zelinsky said.
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