COVER STORY

Summiting with STONE

Roger Stone dishes on Trump, Florida, treason and political combat in the Digital Era

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“They may call me a dirty trickster. I’m a real partisan; I’ve got sharp elbows. But there’s one thing that isn’t in my bag of tricks: treason.” Roger Stone has never backed away from a fight; indeed, he almost relishes starting them. Stone has been a human melee weapon, wielded to great effect in some of the biggest political brawls of the past half-century, dating back to his earliest years in the crucible that was the Nixon White House.

Stone’s story, one of the most infamous in post-war political history, has been retold for a new generation in Get Me Roger Stone, a hilariously histrionic documentary that hit NetFlix in April following a well-received showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. It follows him from his earliest days as a Goldwater guy through his career-making links with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, his 1980s peak running one of the first major lobbying firms, the sex scandal that curbed his activities in the 1990s, and then his return to prominence during the election recount in 2000, which led directly into his current incarnation as a muscle-bound Trumpeter-slash-marijuana advocate.

It’s must-see material for political junkies of all stripes, and quite useful for understanding how America got into our current mess. Through 50 years of shenanigans, Stone has maintained a wicked sense of humor and a sharp eye for often-neglected nuances of retail politics. At age 64, Stone’s read on the prevailing era remains weird, but essential.

“1968 and 2016 were very similar, in many ways,” he said, speaking via phone from his longtime home base of Miami. “Just as leaders, Donald Trump and Nixon are similar. They’re both really pragmatists, neither is an ideologue, they’re both essentially populists with conservative instincts. ... Both of them are very persistent, both of them had to come back from disaster.”

The opposition is praying for further disaster, and it may well get its wish, given the president’s unique gift for self-sabotage. To that end, Stone is one of several Trump affiliates under investigation for their dealings with various foreign nationals whose efforts helped facilitate Trump’s victory.

Stone’s newest book, The Making of the President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution lifts its title from the seminal series written every four years between 1960 and 1980 by journalist Theodore H. White (1915-’86), a quintessential D.C. Beltway insider who is, no doubt, whirling in his grave. One can’t help but view this title as high-level trolling of the first order, which is Stone’s forte. After all, his other books have eye-catching titles like The Man Who Killed JFK, The Clintons’ Crimes Against Women and the impishly insipid Jeb! and the Bush Crime Family. For better and often for worse, Stone is an equal-opportunity trash-talker.

The subtitle is cunningly phrased, as every conceivable meaning of the words “orchestrated” and “revolution” seem to fit in this case. Speaking of which, Stone’s book notes the crucial role of the revolution waged in the Democratic primary by Bernie Sanders and how it foreshadowed the future president’s. “In many ways, Trump and Bernie, they’re riding the same wave. Donald’s voters think these trade deals have fucked America, and Bernie’s voters think these trade deals have fucked America.

“… And also, new voters: Both Trump and Bernie Sanders attract new voters in the primaries. It’s just more people upset about the so-called ‘rigged system’. Bernie rags constantly about the corruption and the power of Wall Street; so does Trump. So I think they’re very similar.”

This similarity was noted early on, and was key to Trump’s victory, according to Stone. “In order to win, Trump had to win three of 10 Sanders voters, and he did.” Despite being a nominal frontrunner, Hillary Clinton was burdened with a top-heavy hierarchical campaign, largely disconnected from political reality. Despite the fact that she spent an estimated $1.2 billion, including PAC money, on her campaign, those funds were squandered on failed strategies and poor logistics that reached a peak that saw her taking victory laps in the closing days of the campaign as Trump barnstormed battleground states. The Clintons expended so much time and energy fending off the Sanders insurgency, they never really got a handle on what awaited them in the general election.

“I think they made the exact same mistake as did Jimmy Carter,” said Stone, who worked for Ronald Reagan in 1980. “The Clintons misunderstood Trump’s appeal. They didn’t think that his simple messaging would be credible; they didn’t understand that Trump talks more like average people than elites. They underestimated … his skill as a candidate, they underestimated his skill as a communicator, and they underestimated his ability to land a punch.”

When Trump first declared for president in 2015, there was almost no one who thought the man had any chance at all—except Stone, who had raised that very possibility as early as 1988, when he arranged a meeting between Trump and his earliest political benefactor, Richard Nixon. “It certainly seemed possible to me, but let’s recognize that I’m a professional political operative and I had, at that point, nine individual presidential campaigns in which I’m playing a senior role as experience. Plus I’ve known Donald Trump for 39 years; I have a very keen knowledge of his management style, his style on the stump, so I understand a lot of the basis of his appeal. … Trump is a giant, and he ran against a lot of career politicians who were essentially pygmies.”

As usual, Florida was a decisive factor in the election, and Stone expects that to continue in 2018. “Florida has proven once again to be the ultimate purple state. It truly is a state that’s always competitive in a presidential race, and less competitive, leaning slightly Republican, in a non-presidential race. The Democrats in Florida, because they have been out of power in the legislature so long, and because they have (generally speaking) not done well in local offices, they really have no bench. They [have] yet to come up with a candidate who is a viable candidate for governor.

“It’s way too early to try to determine how Trump’s candidacy will impact the Florida electorate; it’s an entirely open question. Trump could be exceedingly popular, if he sticks to his agenda and gets things done by the midterms, or he could be unpopular, theoretically, for any number of reasons. But in politics, a year is a lifetime.”

Speaking of Florida, 2018 will be the first year in nearly three decades in which the shadow of Jeb Bush will not blanket the state’s political landscape, and by Stone’s reckoning, you can thank Trump for putting our former governor into permanent retirement. “If Jeb had stayed in the race, and there had been another debate, Trump was prepared to say, ‘Jeb, the [FDLE] had over 22 individual tips about the 9/11 hijackers training in Sarasota; you seem to have done nothing with that information. Don’t you think you could have stopped the attack on America if you had actually done something?’ That was coming, and I think Jeb knew it was coming, and of course that’s all documentable. Only Trump would’ve had the courage to do something like that.”

Today, Stone is prepping for what may be his biggest fight so far, waged on behalf of his good friend, President Donald J. Trump, whose election was controversial, to say the least. Although Stone has not officially worked for Trump since last fall, he remains very much in the mix, part of the president’s wider circle of advisors and adjutants. Indeed, the fact is that the very idea of Donald Trump as POTUS originates in the always-fertile mind of Roger Stone, who never stops thinking of new angles and novel approaches to shaking up the political status quo. Of course, a lot of folks really wish he would stop, but after last year, that seems unlikely.

Whereas most folks tend to get all shy and introspective when the conversation turns to subpoenas, Stone is embracing his opportunity to face off with congressional Democrats before a live, mainstream audience. Having served in the White House under Nixon and Reagan, Stone is by no means a stranger in Beltway circles, but his appearance at the Capitol will mark, for many national observers, their initial introduction to a man without whom everything would be different today.

Despite copious calumny and persistent subpoena threats early on, at press time, Stone has still not appeared before Congress  and it seems increasingly unlikely that he will; still, he’s made no secret of his enthusiasm for doing so.

“They dragged my name through the mud in a public hearing. Several statements made by members were just flatly incorrect, others were chronologically out of order, and still others were written in such a pejorative way that I must have the opportunity to take that language and retell it my way, and then bitch-slap the member for his partisanship.

“… Here’s my proposal: Waive your congressional immunity, so I may sue you, and we’ll let a judge and jury decide if you have slimed me. And you know they won’t do that.”

Covfefe!

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