A plague on both houses
Trump has rewarded Roger Stone and the Democrats want Julian Assange cruelly punished, says Daniel Lazare
Donald Trump’s July 10 commutation of a 40-month prison sentence for Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone is Washington’s latest scandal du jour. It has given Democrats the opportunity to work themselves into a frenzy over Trump’s undermining of the criminal justice system and Republicans to counter that it is nothing more than payback for the greatest dirty trick of all: the nearly three-year effort to drive Trump out of office by accusing him of Russian collusion.
Each side is correct in its own limited way. There is no question that Trump is rewarding Stone for lying to Congress and protecting an old friend. For once, Adam Schiff - the ruthless California neocon who heads up the Democrats’ anti-Russia war drive - was truthful in declaring that Trump “is basically saying, if you lie for me, if you cover up for me, if you have my back, then I will make sure that you get a get-out-of-jail-free card”.
At the same time, there is no doubt that Republicans are right about Russiagate: ie, that it was an attempted coup d’état by Dems, the intelligence agencies and corporate media outlets like The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC - all of which were up in arms over Trump’s call for a Russian rapprochement. The effort left Trump seething with rage, which is why he could not resist poking Democrats in the eye by setting Stone free.
But two things should be kept in mind. One is that Stone’s offences are somewhere between modest and trivial. The reason is that lying to Congress is a national sport. Supreme Court nominees do it, secretaries of state do it, while spy chiefs do it so often that it is hard to keep count. In 2007, CIA director Michael Hayden testified that, according to the agency’s rules, waterboarding can never take place more than twice a day and never more than five days out of 30. Gruesome as this is, a follow-up report found that CIA torturers waterboarded al Qa’eda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as often as four times in one 24-hour period and nine times over the course of two weeks.1 In 2013, director of national intelligence James Clapper told the Senate that security surveillance of ordinary Americans was never done “wittingly”, when - as Edward Snowden would soon reveal - it was massive and routine.
Yet the most The New York Times could say about Clapper’s lies is that they put him in an “awkward position”.2 Now it is bubbling over with righteous anger because a freelance political operative with a long history of substance-abuse failed to inform Congress about certain emails regarding Julian Assange.
As for witness tampering, Stone’s other oh-so-grave offence, basically it amounts to drunken communications with a long-time “frenemy” named Randy Credico - calling him “a rat” and “a stoolie” and threatening to steal his dog if he told the House Intelligence Committee what he knew about WikiLeaks.
Shocking, eh? Perhaps, except that Credico - a left-leaning comic and political activist, who has done important work exposing drug-war abuses - cheerfully confesses that he had no contact with Assange and that he never took Stone seriously.3 In January, he sent the federal judge presiding over Stone’s case a letter pleading for clemency: “I chalked up his bellicose tirades to ‘Stone being Stone’,” Credico wrote: “All bark and no bite.”
“I understand that Roger Stone has broken federal laws,” the letter went on, “but a prison sentence is beyond what is required in this case. It is not justice. It is cruelty.”
Moral outrage is the default response among Washington liberals, but now it seems especially misplaced.
The other thing to keep in mind is the imperial crisis that triggered Russiagate in the first place. When Vladimir Putin seized the Crimea in March 2014 in order to head off a Nato takeover of Russia’s all-important naval base at Sevastopol, the Washington foreign-policy establishment erupted in fury. When he intervened in Syria in September 2015 on behalf of the tottering Assad government, it erupted again. When Russian and Syrian forces succeeded in driving the last US and Saudi-backed jihadis out of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, in December 2016, its cup positively overflowed. As one neocon think tank put it,
A Russian and Iranian-protected Assad enclave in the Middle East, ringed by Iranian-backed militias, could serve as a beachhead for attacks against Israel, Turkey and other allies, or even US interests at points in the not-so-distant future.4
Giddy with success after a decade and a half of unipolarity, the US had set out to encircle Russia. But instead it found Russia encircling it in the Middle East.
So Russiagate amounted to payback as well. Seizing on baseless reports by an ex-MI6 agent named Christopher Steele, Democrats accused Russia of cultivating Trump since at least 2011 and then tampering with the 2016 election in order to install him in the Oval Office. It was a replay of the old ‘stab in the back’ theory advanced by German rightists after World War I. But, instead of blaming Judeo-Bolsheviks, Dems blamed Trump for serving as assassin-in-chief.
The details of Russiagate may be too much for ordinary readers to bear at this late date. Suffice to say, rarely have American politics descended to such farcical depths. Unable to charge anyone with collusion for the simple reason that collusion never took place, special prosecutor Robert Mueller compensated by accusing a dozen or so Trump associates, semi-associates or ordinary bystanders of unrelated offences or “process crimes”, arising out of the Russiagate investigation itself. In 2018, he charged Paul Manafort, Stone’s former business partner, with a range of financial crimes committed years before Trump tapped him to manage his 2016 election campaign. He indicted a Russian associate of Manafort’s named Konstantin Kilimnik on charges of obstruction of justice in connection with his boss’s activities as an unregistered Washington lobbyist - activities that also predated the 2016 campaign.
Then there was Stone. A dandy, a bestselling author - his books include a how-to guide to dressing for success - and a relentless self-promoter, he got his start at age 20 working for Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign and quickly made a name for himself as a political prankster by donating money to a rival candidate in the name of a Trotskyist youth group known as the Young Socialist Alliance. He worked for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and then joined with Manafort and another Republican lobbyist named Charlie Black to form a Washington consulting firm known as ‘the torturers’ lobby’, because it represented people like Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. Black, Manafort and Stone also represented Rupert Murdoch, the Tobacco Institute - and a flamboyant young real-estate mogul named Trump.
Innumerable misadventures ensued before Stone signed onto the Trump campaign as a political advisor in mid-2015. Fired within months, he nonetheless continued hanging out on the campaign’s fringes, trying to impress the nominee with his inside knowledge about WikiLeaks.
This is what got him into trouble. In July 2016, WikiLeaks turned American politics upside-down by releasing thousands of emails stolen from Democratic National Committee computers. The disclosures were deeply embarrassing to Hillary Clinton and hence beneficial to Trump, so Republicans were eager to learn when the next batch would arrive. Stone turned to Credico, who had once had Assange on a radio show he hosted in New York. While Credico had no inside knowledge, he noticed a flurry of activity when he visited the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where Assange was holed up. So he texted Stone in early October: “I think it’s on for tomorrow.” He was off by several days, but it was a good guess nonetheless.
Of such gossamer material was Russiagate made. The Credico text led Democrats to conclude that Stone was in league with WikiLeaks, which was in league with Russia, which was in league with Trump - all wanting to hijack America and subordinate it to the Kremlin’s evil dictates. The KGB, in which Putin had once served, would finally achieve its mission of blocking America’s great crusade to spread democracy throughout the globe (if only …).
It is a long, sorry saga that illustrates three things: how far the crisis of imperialism has progressed, how decrepit US democracy has grown, and how Assange has emerged as one of Russiagate’s chief victims. According to the Mueller investigation, WikiLeaks received emails that Russian intelligence had hacked from the DNC and then put them out on the internet in order to assist Moscow in destroying Clinton’s campaign. This suggests that Assange is not a journalist, but a Russian operative.
However, while Russian intelligence may well have penetrated the DNC’s computers, there is no evidence that it removed the emails. In December 2017, for instance, Shawn Henry, president of CrowdStrike, the California cyber-security firm that investigated the hack, told the House Intelligence Committee that he “did not have concrete evidence that the data was exfiltrated from the DNC”.5 In March 2019, the Mueller report confessed that it could not be ruled out that
stolen documents were transferred to WikiLeaks through intermediaries who visited during the summer of 2016. For example, public reporting identified Andrew Müller-Maguhn as a WikiLeaks associate who may have assisted with the transfer of these stolen documents to WikiLeaks.6
Since Mueller does not know how the transfer occurred, it may not have occurred at all. Finally, the report’s chronology does not make sense, because it shows WikiLeaks receiving a massive email trove from Russian intelligence just days prior to publication, which is hardly enough time to vet the contents and ensure they were genuine.
All of this is consistent with what Assange has maintained all along, which is that “our source is not the Russian government and it is not a state party”. Democrats have piled on him regardless, as he languishes in HM Prison Belmarsh awaiting extradition to the US. With Joe Biden likening Assange to a “hi-tech terrorist”, Clinton declaring that “he has to answer for what he has done” and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer tweeting that he hopes “he will soon be held to account for his meddling in our elections on behalf of Putin and the Russian government”,7 can there be any doubt that Democrats are every bit as reactionary as Republicans?
If ever there were a case for a plague on both their houses, this is it.
The Atlantic December 9 2014: theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/12/how-the-cia-lied-to-congress-on-torture-according-to-congress/453450.↩︎
The New York Times June 11 2013: www.nytimes.com/2013/06/12/us/nsa-disclosures-put-awkward-light-on-official-statements.html.↩︎
See Credico’s February 22 interview with The Grayzone’s Aaron Maté at youtube.com/watch?v=4eVVZNM6550.↩︎
Henry’s closed-door testimony before the House Intelligence Committee was made public in May. See intelligence.house.gov/uploadedfiles/sh21.pdf (p32).↩︎
See p47 of Mueller’s report at justice.gov/storage/report.pdf.↩︎