Television and newspaper journalists need to chat with some former Justice Department prosecutors before taking Roger Stone at his word and declaring that he is now ready to cooperate against President Donald Trump. Look closely before snatching the piece of cheese; it’s a trap.
After Stone’s Friday arrest on federal charges of lying to Congress and tampering with a witness, TV talking heads speculated that special counsel Robert Mueller indicted Stone to force his cooperation against the president. Pushing back, Stone publicly proclaimed: “I have made it clear I will not testify against the president, because I would have to bear false witness against him.” “I am one of his oldest friends. I am a fervent supporter of the president.”
Then, on Sunday, Stone appeared on ABC News’ “This Week” and said: “If there’s wrongdoing by other people in the campaign that I know about — which I know of none — but, if there is, I would certainly testify honestly.” That prelude led to: “I’d also testify honestly about any other matter, including any communications with the president.”
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Stone’s statement was too shiny for the news media to resist, and the headlines surfaced faster than a rotten egg in a glass of water. CNN proclaimed: “Roger Stone does not rule out cooperating with Mueller.” The Wall Street Journal announced that “Roger Stone Says He Would Consider Cooperating With Mueller.” And the Huffington Post headlined a video report with: “Trump Adviser Roger Stone Agrees To Cooperate With Mueller Investigation.”
Fortune magazine, Fox News, Newsweek and virtually every other major news outlet took Stone’s statement, ran it through the press version of auto tune, and dropped an eye-catching headline that characterized Stone as a Trump loyalist who cracked and is now firmly cemented in Mueller’s wall.
Stone doesn’t actually want to cooperate
As a former federal prosecutor, who flipped hundreds of defendants after indicting them, I have three words in response to the media’s frenzied speculation that Roger Stone is going to cooperate against Donald Trump. No. No. No. Stone is not Michael Cohen, who went from vowing to “take a bullet” for Trump to detailing Trump’s hush-money payments to a porn star.
Stone’s newfound willingness to testify against the president is a trick that federal prosecutors routinely see when a criminal wants to help his partner in crime but does not want to appear obvious in his efforts. When Stone says he would like nothing more than to testify truthfully about his communications with the president, prosecutors hear: “If I refuse to testify, it’s going to make me and the president look like the guilty bandits we are. So, I’ll smile and say I’m happy to testify truthfully. Then, I’ll lie through my teeth and call it the god’s honest truth.”
That Stone’s recent comments are a tactic, rather than a legitimate overture to cooperate with Mueller, can be found in the carefully choreographed language in which he says he’s willing to testify about all wrongdoing — even though there was no wrongdoing to testify about. And, any testimony that would be critical of the president would be bearing false witness, so he has no critical testimony to offer.
Stone pleaded not guilty on Tuesday, two days after going out of his way to offer “cooperation” he knows will be of no interest to Mueller. Why would he make that offer? Two reasons. First, Stone’s offer to cooperate is not actually directed at Mueller. It’s a public relations ploy that superficially makes him look like he’s got nothing to hide.
Stone’s ‘cooperation’ a weapon against Mueller
Second, and most important, Stone has offered an important talking point that will allow Trump to continue his attack on Mueller’s impartiality by claiming Mueller refuses to accept cooperation from anyone who exonerates the president. This is a recurring theme in the president’s attacks on the special counsel, in anticipation of a report that seems likely to paint a picture of Trump as complicit in seeking, and accepting, Russia’s help in securing his 2016 presidential election win.
Mark my words, there will be a tweet, a news conference or some other public comment in which Stone’s offer to cooperate will be used as a weapon against Mueller. And when this happens, the media need to do their job and avoid click-bait headlines that have already conflated Stone’s public relations campaign with a legitimate offer to cooperate.
If the press has learned anything from years of headlines that featured the words “Benghazi” and “emails,” it must be that there is a line between reporting events and filling a reported event with helium.
Roger Stone has built a reputation as a “dirty trickster.” When he says he wants to cooperate in the investigation in which he has been indicted, nuance is everything. There is a world of difference between a finely cultured slab of French blue cheese and a moldy block of Velveeta.
Michael J. Stern was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles.