Prosecutors fired their opening salvo Wednesday in the trial of Roger Stone, tying the combative political consultant directly to the president by revealing a series of 2016 phone calls that they said showed Stone later lied to Congress "because the truth looked bad for Donald Trump."
Stone's lawyer, in turn, argued that his client never meant to lie to lawmakers about his efforts to gain insights about Democrats' hacked emails ahead of the presidential election. In an unusual gambit, Stone's lawyer Bruce Rogow argued that Stone's public claims about connections to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks were false, and that therefore he did not make false statements later to Congress.
Stone's trial the last case filed by special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, and prosecutors wasted little time drawing a straight line from Stone's alleged crimes to Trump's political interests.
"The evidence in this case will show Roger Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee because the truth looked bad for the Trump campaign, and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump," prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky, who was a member of Mueller's team, told the jury of nine women and three men at the federal courthouse in Washington.
Zelinsky said that on the evening of June 14, 2016 - the day the Democratic National Committee announced its computer system had been hacked, and two days after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claimed to have thousands of emails "pending publication" - Stone and then-candidate Trump exchanged telephone calls lasting just over four minutes.
Then, on June 30, which was the day Russian operatives using the online persona Guccifer 2.0 publicly claimed to be a hacker targeting Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton, Stone again called Trump for 2 minutes 37 seconds, according to phone records introduced in court.
In late July, after WikiLeaks had begun releasing hacked DNC material, Stone called Trump's phone, leading to a 10-minute call.
Prosecutors do not know what the two discussed but "about an hour after that call that Roger Stone had with then-candidate Trump, Roger Stone sent another email," Zelinsky said, asking a friend in London to try to contact Assange.
The prosecutor urged jurors to focus on Stone's conduct, not the broader controversies still swirling around the 2016 campaign.
"This case is not about who hacked the Democratic National Committee servers. This case is not about whether Roger Stone had any communications with Russians. And this case is not about politics," said Zelinsky. "This case is about Roger Stone's false testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in an attempt to obstruct the investigation and to tamper with evidence."
Stone, 67, a longtime Trump adviser and political consultant, has pleaded not guilty to a seven-count indictment that charges him with false statements and witness tampering.
Prosecutors say he lied on several points: when he told the House Intelligence Committee in September 2017 that he did not have texts or emails about his 2016 discussions surrounding WikiLeaks, when he said that he had only one associate who tried to act as a go-between with Assange, and when he claimed that he never spoke to anyone in the Trump campaign about WikiLeaks' plans.
Zelinsky said Stone told those lies because if Congress had learned of his many emails and texts seeking details about what WikiLeaks had on Clinton, "it would have unraveled all of the other lies Roger Stone told."
The prosecutor also pointed to an email Stone sent to then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort on Aug. 3, 2016, seeking to speak to him.
When Manafort asked why, Stone emailed back, "To save Trump's a--. Call me please." Manafort, who was among Mueller's early targets, is in prison. He was convicted last year of financial crimes unrelated to Russia's election interference.
After WikiLeaks began releasing hacked data in summer 2016, Stone emailed Trump campaign strategist Steve Bannon, writing that "Trump can still win, but time is running out," according to a copy of the message shown to jurors. " 'I know how to win, but it ain't pretty,' " Zelinsky read from the email, suggesting that Stone was alluding to WikiLeaks.
Stone's lead defense attorney countered that Stone agreed to testify without a subpoena, and in public, thinking the questions would be about any contacts with Russians.
"The evidence will show that's not the usual way that people go to a committee hearing, certainly if they're intending to lie," said Rogow.
Stone, he said, was exercising his First Amendment rights during the election.
"Supporting the president or a candidate for president is not a crime of any sort," Rogow said. "We are not here to try Russian collusion; there has been no finding of Russian collusion with regard to Mr. Stone, no finding of Russian collusion with regard to the campaign."
Much of the case centers on Stone's interactions with conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi and former radio show host Randy Credico, both of whom Stone allegedly tried to use as go-betweens to get early word from WikiLeaks about what information the anti-secrecy group had and when it planned to make it public.
Rogow said House investigators never found that Stone "knew anything other than what was in the public arena" in regards to the Russian hack. "He did brag about his ability to find out what was going on," he said. "But he had no intermediary."
The trial's first witness, former FBI Special Agent Michelle Taylor, described to the jury multiple instances in August 2016 in which Stone gave interviews claiming to have such an intermediary in touch with WikiLeaks.
The lawyer said his client was lied to, and then lied himself to puff up his image.
"It's made-up stuff," he said. Credico and Corsi "were playing Mr. Stone" and "he took the bait," Rogow said. Stone bragged publicly about his contacts and access because it played well politically and in the media, Rogow said. Stone, in turn, was "playing others" by pretending "he had some kind of direct contact" with WikiLeaks, the lawyer said.
The trial before Judge Amy Berman Jackson is expected to last about two weeks. She has warned that any visible or audible response from those attending the trial will lead to expulsion from the courtroom, and after one break, Stone warned his supporters to "tone down the reactions - no smiling, no giggling, no rolling your eyes," he said.
A trove of Stone's communications with Trump insiders, including exchanges with Bannon, Manafort and Manafort deputy Rick Gates, will figure prominently in the case.
Zelinsky said the case's most important evidence will not be the witnesses, but Stone's own words.
"Amazingly, most of the evidence in this case is in the written record - it's emails and text messages showing what really happened. If those records had come out, the truth would have been exposed," the prosecutor said.
The trial will detail the eagerness of some in Trump's orbit to find damaging information to derail Clinton's presidential run, and how Stone then denied such efforts when asked.
"At a critical moment in this nation's history," as Congress sought to "find out the truth of what happened," Zelinsky said, Stone "was doing his best to stop them."
This article was written by Spencer S. Hsu, Rachel Weiner and Devlin Barrett, reporters for The Washington Post.