WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The prosecution in the trial of Roger Stone on Wednesday painted President Donald Trump’s longtime adviser as a liar in a criminal case stemming from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe that detailed Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
The prosecution and defense gave their opening statements and then prosecutors called their first witness in federal court in Stone’s trial after a 12-person jury was selected.
The 67-year-old veteran Republican political operative – a self-described “dirty trickster” and “agent provocateur” – has pleaded not guilty to charges of obstructing justice, witness tampering and lying to the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
“Stone straight up lied” to Congress, prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky told the jury.
Stone has been a friend and ally of Trump for some 40 years.
“Now you’ll ask, why didn’t Roger Stone just tell the truth?” Zelinsky asked the jurors. “The evidence in this case will show that 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,” Zelinsky added.
Zelinsky accused Stone of five categories of lies. In the defense opening statement, Bruce Rogow, a lawyer for Stone, accused prosecutors of “plucking out five questions and answers” out of lengthy testimony that the defendant gave before the committee. Rogow said Stone did not “willfully and intentionally” mislead lawmakers.
The prosecution said the jury will hear testimony from Steve Bannon, who served as an adviser to Trump during the campaign and in the White House, and former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, who testified for the government last year in a trial that led to the conviction of former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Zelinsky told the jurors the case was neither about politics nor about who hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016. U.S. intelligence agencies and Mueller concluded the hacking was done by Russia.
Stone is accused of lying to the Intelligence Committee about the Trump campaign’s efforts to obtain emails hacked by Russia that were published by the Wikileaks website to harm Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. The Democratic-led panel is now spearheading the House impeachment inquiry against Trump over his request that Ukraine investigate a Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson is presiding over the trial.
‘STATE OF MIND’
Defense lawyer Rogow urged jurors to consider Stone’s state of mind at the time he was speaking to the Intelligence Committee.
“We are talking about his state of mind that the Russians did not collude with him or with the Trump campaign – and that’s how he goes into this,” Rogow added.
Rogow said Stone agreed to testify voluntarily before the committee, without a subpoena. Rogow read from a letter Stone’s lawyers received from the committee that said the interview would cover topics including Russian cyber activities and potential leaks between Russia and political campaign officials.
“There’s no mention of Wikileaks. There’s no mention of Assange,” Rogow said, referring to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
Part of the case involves communications between Stone and two other key figures: radio host Randy Credico and conservative author Jerome Corsi. The prosecution said Stone relied on both men as intermediaries with Assange and the Wikileaks organization as part of an effort to learn more about a plan to disclose damaging emails about Clinton.
“Stone regularly updated people on the Trump campaign at the senior levels about whatever information he thought he had about Wikileaks,” Zelinsky said, adding that Stone “was going to the very top of the Trump campaign – the CEO of the Trump campaign – a man named Steve Bannon.”
Zelinsky said Stone tried to pin all of his interactions with a Wikileaks intermediary on Credico and lied about his communications with Corsi. Zelinsky said that if one is looking for someone to “pin something on, Randy Credico is a pretty good person to pick.”
“Randy Credico will tell you that in his past, he has struggled with alcohol, and Randy Credico will tell you that he is excitable and Randy Credico will tell you that Roger Stone knew all of this,” the prosecutor said.
Zelinsky said that in July 2016, Stone spoke by phone with then-candidate Trump for about 10 minutes. Although the precise contents of the call are unknown, Stone sent an email to Corsi about an hour later and told him “that a friend of theirs living in London should see Julian Assange,” Zelinsky said.
Two days later, Corsi emailed back and said their friend planned two more disclosures of hacked emails, Zelinsky said.
Zelinsky said Stone lied in sworn testimony to Representative Adam Schiff, now chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, about emails to third parties related to Assange.
“He said he had no emails of any kind referring to Julian Assange,” Zelinsky said.
In truth, Stone had “many, many such emails” including the message from Corsi saying more damaging email dumps were coming, Zelinsky added.
Former FBI agent Michelle Taylor was the first witness called by prosecutors.
The charges against Stone stem from Mueller’s investigation, which ended in March.
Mueller documented Russian efforts to boost Trump’s candidacy and led to criminal charges against several Trump advisers and campaign aides. Stone and his former business partner Manafort were the only two from this group not to plead guilty. Manafort was convicted and sentenced to 7-1/2 years in prison.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Editing by Will Dunham