Drama builds around Stone in Mueller probe

Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE continues to zero in on Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneRoger Stone fundraising off promise not to testify against Trump Stone admits to publishing false statements on InfoWars Giuliani indicates Trump Tower Moscow discussions took place up until November 2016 MORE as speculation builds that the special counsel could take a major overt step in his Russia investigation following the midterm elections next week.

Stone, a longtime adviser to President TrumpDonald John TrumpREAD: Transcript of James Comey's interview with House Republicans Klobuchar on 2020: ‘I do think you want voices from the Midwest’ Israel boycott fight roils Democrats in year-end spending debate MORE who briefly worked on his campaign, is viewed as central to the question of what, if anything, members of the Trump campaign knew in advance about Democratic emails hacked by Russian operatives and then released by WikiLeaks.

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Legal analysts say Mueller is likely interested in determining whether the campaign helped coordinate the document dump, and views Stone as key to making that judgment.

Stone, who both publicly and privately referenced contacts with WikiLeaks during the campaign, has drawn the interest of Mueller in recent weeks and months.

The special counsel’s team has been interviewing and subpoenaing several Stone associates and former Trump campaign officials in an apparent effort to drill down on Stone’s links to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and any knowledge he had about the hacked emails.

Stone vehemently denies having inside information about the content or source of the emails, noting in an interview Friday he simply was tipped off by a source that WikiLeaks had “bombshell” information that would “roil” the presidential race in October 2016.

Emails released Thursday by The New York Times showed that Stone was in communication with at least one senior campaign official — namely Stephen Bannon — about the forthcoming disclosures, anticipating “a load every week going forward” when asked about Assange’s plans. Mueller’s team interviewed Bannon last week, a source familiar with the interaction confirmed to The Hill.

Publicly, Stone appeared to forecast the release of material that would damage Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRoger Stone fundraising off promise not to testify against Trump Rivaling chants of 'USA,' 'lock him up' greet Flynn after sentencing hearing The Hill's 12:30 Report — Flynn awaits sentencing | White House signals it wants to avoid shutdown MORE’s campaign in the weeks and days leading up to the leaks of hacked messages from John Podesta’s personal account.

Wednesday@HillaryClinton is done. #Wikileaks,” Stone wrote on his Twitter account, which has since been suspended, on Oct. 2, 2016. WikiLeaks released the hacked emails five days later, a Friday, shortly after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump is heard bragging to Billy Bush about groping and kissing women without their consent.

Still, none of his communications — private or public — that have emerged in the press show him discussing the content or source of the documents before their release, a detail Stone highlighted in arguing he did nothing wrong.

Stone says that his email to Bannon was based on a Politico report from earlier the same day that highlighted a news conference at which Assange promised forthcoming releases related to the election.

In an op-ed penned for the conservative news site The Daily Caller, Stone on Thursday denied urging WikiLeaks to release the Podesta emails following the “Access Hollywood” revelations. He also said he predicted the WikiLeaks releases based on publicly available information, including a July 2016 CNN interview with Assange, as well as information communicated to him by radio host and political satirist Randy Credico.

Stone previously identified Credico as his connection to Assange during a closed-door interview with the House Intelligence Committee. Credico has adamantly denied Stone’s account, saying his first interaction with Assange was on his radio show in late August 2016, after Stone had already implied he had a back channel to WikiLeaks. Stone, meanwhile, stood by his testimony on Friday, accusing Credico of being untruthful. He also said he now believes a female lawyer who worked for Assange was Credico's source of the WikiLeaks information.

Credico testified before the grand jury in September and has been interviewed multiple times by Mueller’s investigators.

“The Mueller team knows that the first conversation that I had was on my radio show,” Credico said in a phone interview Friday. “Emails will confirm it.” 

Former campaign officials and associates of Stone say he portrayed himself as having an in with Assange during the campaign, a detail underscored by the emails published by the Times. Some also suggest that he may have exaggerated his connections in order to curry favor with the campaign after his ouster. Stone has been widely described as having a penchant for stretching the truth.

Former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg, who voluntarily testified before Mueller’s grand jury in March, was told by Stone in an August 2016 email that he dined with Assange, a remark Stone later said was made in jest. Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012, making such an encounter unlikely.

“Roger wrote me in an email and said he met with Julian Assange,” Nunberg, who no longer believes Stone’s claims, said in an interview. “When he initially told me that he did, Roger said to me that they were going to release information on the Clinton Foundation.”

“I think that was just puffery, bravado by Roger,” Nunberg said.

Assange, meanwhile, has publicly denied having contact with Stone.

In the two years since the 2016 presidential race, Stone has been no stranger to media scrutiny for his claims about WikiLeaks — an organization some in Trump’s own administration have branded a “non-state hostile intelligence service.”

The focus on him deepened last year, after the U.S. intelligence community implicated the Russian government in the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Podesta hacks and said Moscow’s goal was, in part, to help Trump win.

Stone has also admitted to having contacts with Guccifer 2.0, the hacking persona identified by Mueller as a front for Russian intelligence, but described the exchange, which has been made public, as innocuous.

The path of Mueller’s inquiry into Stone is unclear, largely because his investigation has pressed forward behind closed doors, though a handful of interviews and subpoenas establish his interest in the longtime Trump ally.

Kristin Davis, better known as the “Manhattan Madam,” is one longtime Stone associate who testified before the grand jury in August. Jerome Corsi, a far-right conspiracy theorist with links to Stone, has also reportedly been subpoenaed to testify. Former Stone aide Andrew Miller is currently battling a grand jury subpoena and is due back in federal appeals court next Thursday.

“I think they wanted to get to the bottom of what happened in 2016 about this whole back channel,” said Credico — who described Mueller’s team as “methodical” in their questioning — of the investigation.

Legal experts following the probe suspect Mueller is looking for evidence that the Trump campaign somehow played a role in the release of the hacked emails. Trump has vehemently denied that the campaign colluded with Moscow, criticizing Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt.”

“[Stone] is part of this idea of a quid pro quo that the Russians were offering dirt on Clinton on a future promise to reduce or eliminate sanctions on Russia,” Seth Waxman, a former federal prosecutor in D.C., said.

“Roger Stone’s role would be in how did the dirt get out,” Waxman added. “Was that a unilateral decision that WikiLeaks and Julian Assange made, or was it directed in whole or in part by the president or his team?”

Evidence of such a scheme could trigger conspiracy charges against Stone or others. It is also possible that Mueller is examining the veracity of Stone’s statements before the House Intelligence Committee, given Credico’s claims that Stone was not truthful when naming him as his WikiLeaks source.

As of Friday, Mueller had not reached out to Stone himself, according to one of his lawyers, Bruce Rogow. Prosecutors generally do not interview or subpoena an individual if they are the subject or a target of an investigation at that time.

Stone has said that he is “prepared” to be indicted by Mueller “should that be the case.” But on Friday, he predicted nothing would happen if the special counsel makes decisions based on “facts or evidence.”

“If their decision is made on the basis of facts or evidence, then nothing will happen,” Stone said. “There is no evidence and no person that could honestly testify that I received anything, including allegedly hacked emails from the Russians, Guccifer 2.0, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, Jerry Corsi, or anyone else, and passed it onto Donald Trump, the Trump campaign, or anyone else.”

When asked why he believes he has drawn Mueller’s eye, Stone replied, “Some people just refuse to believe that I was able to bluff and posture and hype, using Twitter effectively to do it, drawing huge attention to disclosures when they finally came, without inside information.”

“I had no inside information,” he said.

A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment on Friday. 

--This report was updated on Nov. 4 at 8:32 a.m.