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The Prankster Stops Laughing

Roger Stone played a key role in stopping the recount of votes in Florida that would have cost George W. Bush the Presidency in 2000. He reprised his role post-Election Day in 2020 on behalf of his longtime client and part-time friend, Donald Trump. Stone expected to be with the President in the Situation Room on January 6, 2021, but he wasn’t invited. He expected to address the crowd at the ellipse – he had been in close touch with leaders of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers – but he was never summoned from his room at the Willard Hotel. He watched the storming of the capitol on a TV set in the Willard Hotel as he packed his suitcase. Then he flew down to Florida on a private jet. 

Political dirty-tricks specialists typically try to stay in the background as events unfold, but Stone, like Trump, is a credit-grabber and a show-off. When two Danish documentary makers, Daniel Roher and Christoffer Guldbrandsen, asked to follow him about early in 2019, the ego boost outweighed the legal risk and Stone gave them access. They tracked him for two years. And so his machinations will be exposed in details when their film, “A Storm Foretold,” comes to the small screen later this year. 

Stone was born in 1952 in Connecticut. He describes his family as “middle-class, Catholic.” His mother ran the PTA and wrote for the town newspaper. Roger Sr. ran a well-drilling business and the volunteer fire department. (Their dinner table conversation must have been politics at the nitty-grittiest level.) Roger Jr. became fascinated by electoral politics. At age 12 he volunteered to help out in the Goldwater campaign.

“As a student at George Washington University in 1972,” according to invaluable Wikipedia, “Stone invited Jeb Stuart Magruder to speak at a Young Republicans Club meeting, then asked Magruder for a job with Richard Nixon.” The White House appreciated his pranks – like donating money to a perceived foe of Nixon’s in the name of the Young Socialist Alliance, then sending the YSA receipt to the media. When Nixon was re-elected, Stone’s reward was a job in the Office of Economic Opportunity. In 1975 he helped build the National Conservative Political Action Committee, whose goal was to expand the amount of money donors could legally give to campaigns. In ‘77 he was elected president of the Young Republicans. Paul Manafort was his campaign manager. 

Working on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, Stone helped arrange an endorsement by New York’s Liberal Party for the independent candidate, John Anderson, to siphon votes from Jimmy Carter. Stone credited Roy Cohn, the fixer-of-fixers, with devising the scheme. After the statute of limitations for bribery ran out years later, Stone revealed that Cohn had given him a suitcase – presumably cash-filled – to deliver to a Liberal Party big shot. 

In 1981, as chief strategist for New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, Stone helped fend off a recall. Then, with Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the White House, it was time to get rich as a lobbyist. Stone, Manafort, and a partner launched a super-successful Washington lobbying firm. Their clients would include Mobutu Sese Seko and Ferdinand Marcos, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, The Tobacco Institute, and the casino magnate Donald Trump (another great admirer of Roy Cohn). Stone and Trump had a strong affinity but clashed occasionally. One of the Danish filmmakers describes their relationship as “frenemies.”

According to legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, “Stone had a surprising admiration for the left-wing protesters of the 1960s. They knew the power of protests and Stone, following their lead, never hesitated to include noisy public demonstrations in his own political calculations.” Nor did he hesitate to have dealings with Julian Assange. Robert Mueller tried but was unable to prove that Stone had urged the Wikileaks founder to publish dirt on the Clinton campaign prior to the 2016 election. (Why would Assange need urging? Publishing such exposés was his purpose in life.) Mueller’s investigation ultimately revealed that in 2017 Assange expressed the hope to Stone that the Administration would reconsider the 2010 case against him (for leaking the classified documents provided by Chelsea Manning).

Stone was an uncooperative and duplicitous witness before the House Intelligence Committee. He would be indicted for obstructing an investigation, making false statements, and witness tampering. Arrested in 2019, he was convicted on all counts. Stone was facing 40 months in prison when Donald Trump commuted his sentence in April 2020. He pleaded for a full pardon and Trump finally granted him one in late December. According to the forthcoming documentary Stone kept pleading in vain for a second pardon that would cover his ongoing transgressions. When it wasn’t forthcoming, he cursed Trump for “betraying everybody.”

In March Roher and Guldbrandsen showed 20 hours of footage to two Washington Post reporters, Dalton Bennett and Jon Swain, who wrote a piece for the Post website about what was revealed. Excerpts follow.

• “Stone moved quickly after Trump’s defeat to help mobilize the protest movement that drew thousands to the nation’s capital on Jan. 6, 2021. He privately strategized with former national security adviser Michael Flynn and rally organizer Ali Alexander... A few hours before the Jan. 6 attack, the video shows, a member of the far-right Oath Keepers group — who has since pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy — was in Stone’s suite at the Willard. Other rooms in the same hotel were used as a ‘command center’ by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and other advisers involved in the fractious battle to overturn the election. Stone was not part of their effort, the footage indicates, and he said he feared that top organizers were trying to exclude him from the rally.

• “In an Inauguration Day call with a friend, Stone directed his rage at the man who had confided in him and consulted with him for decades, denouncing Trump as ‘a disgrace’ and expressing support for him to be impeached. ‘He betrayed everybody,’ Stone said.

• “On Nov. 5, as vote counts in key states slipped away from Trump, Stone coordinated a response during a rapid-fire succession of calls. As the filmmakers drove him to his makeshift office space in a strip mall near his home, Stone told one associate to create an account for hunting election fraud on an encrypted email service to avoid surveillance. Dictating text messages, Stone told an aide to resurrect his Stop the Steal campaign. He predicted to another aide that his brand was about to be “quite a bit hotter” as a result, adding, ‘We’re going to raise money from Stop the Steal — it will be like falling off a log’.”

• “Stone directed aides to recruit retired military and law enforcement officials for Stop the Steal.”

• “On Nov. 5, Stone drew up a Stop the Steal action plan that was visible on [an aide’s] laptop in footage captured by the filmmakers. As protesters were mobilized, the plan said, state lawmakers would be lobbied to reject official results. That tactic later proved central to Trump’s efforts.

• “Also that day, Stone had a 15-minute call with Flynn, the video shows. He told Flynn they could ‘document an overwhelming and compelling fraud’ in each battleground state and urged him to spread the word on social media. That day, Flynn, Trump’s campaign and his sons Donald Jr. and Eric began using #StopTheSteal on Twitter.”

• “Stone and Flynn discussed the need to coordinate with the White House and oppose demands by Republicans in some states to stop counting votes. ‘Our slogan should be “count every legal ballot.” Much better messaging. More positive,’ Stone said... That evening, Trump gave a speech from the White House briefing room. ‘If you count the legal votes, I easily win,’ he began.”

• “On Dec. 19, Trump announced on social media that a ‘big protest’ would be held in Washington on Jan. 6. ‘Be there, will be wild!’ 

• “Stone was transported and guarded on Jan. 5 by multiple Oath Keepers, the filmmakers’ footage and other video posted online show, and four Oath Keepers escorted Stone back to the Willard after his speech at about 8 p.m. Two of the Oath Keepers who were with Stone, Joshua James and Brian Ulrich, were later charged with seditious conspiracy after allegedly storming the Capitol. James pleaded guilty this week and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. A third, Mark Grods, admitted in a plea deal that he traveled to the D.C. area from Alabama with two guns and joined fellow members in the Capitol riot...James, one of the Oath Keepers seen guarding Stone, told a fellow Oath Keeper late on the morning of Jan. 6 that the speaker he was protecting was ‘angry because he was not getting VIP treatment’.”

The Customer Is No Longer Right

Walter, a senior citizen, had what he called “a hassle” with a company that runs estate sales in Alameda County and also sells so-called antiques at its own store. The store refused to take back two defective cassette recorders he had purchased at one of their sales the week before. It wasn’t the loss of $31 that left him feeling miserable, it was the insult and how he handled it.

The generation gap was a factor. When America really was great for some of us, “the customer is always right” was the principle by which most businesses dealt with the public. The owners figured it was in their long-term interest to not alienate their customers.  In those days, which are gone forever, bills arrived in the mail with a pre-paid envelope in which you mailed back your check. If you reached a wrong phone number, you could then dial ‘O,’  tell the operator that you’d misdialed (you didn’t really have to give a reason), and she’d say reassuringly that you wouldn’t get charged for the call. It was just that simple.

It was around 1970 that they decided to squeeze us for every last penny.

At an estate sale in mid-June, the first one he’d been to since the epidemic hit, Walter had bought a Sony boom box comprised of a cassette player, a radio, a CD player and two speakers. He had a large collection of audio tapes that he intended to listen to while working in the garage.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t get the device to play his old Joan Armatrading tape. He tried his old Merle Haggard tape and that didn’t work either. He

Wondered if there was “a switch or something” he was failing to turn on.  He brought the two items to the antique store hoping someone could get them to work and assuming he’d get a refund or a credit if they couldn’t.  

The store looked empty at first. A woman of about 40 was sitting at a desk way at the back. 

“I bought these at your estate sale last weekend,” Walter began. Before he could ask for help getting them to work, she said curtly, “We don’t take returns.”

He was thrown off script. “Not even if something doesn’t work?” he asked.

The woman said, “There were signs on every wall. ‘We don’t take returns.’ “And that works,” she added, nodding towards boombox.

“Well, maybe you could show me how,” said Walter, plunking it  down on a table. He noticed an unintended note of irritation in his voice.

The woman did not get up from her desk. There was no one else in the store.  Walter argued his case. “I can understand not taking returns if I told you my wife didn’t like the color of something, but if a product is broken…”

The woman didn’t respond. He went on, “Your company lists all the items online with pictures and descriptions –and you don’t make sure that they work?” He meant the question to express polite incredulity, but it sounded sarcastic and angry. It had been many years since he’d lost his temper and he’d forgotten how bad it used to be. He turned around to leave. ”’I’m gonna come back,with a tape,” he told her over his shoulder, “and you can show me how to play it,”

When he returned a half hour later brandishing “Learn French, Casette # 3,” a handsome young man, 30ish, was stationed near the door. He greeted Walter with “We don’t take returns” and held up a flat palm in the classic “Halt” gesture 

Walter pointed to the woman in the back, “She said that tape recorder worked and I want her to show me.”

The woman got up from her desk.  “I said the radio worked,” she told her colleague. 

The blatant lie did not have a calming effect on Walter. He brushed past the faux guard, cassette in hand. The young man scurried to block his path and said, “There were eight signs posted at that sale. We do not take returns.”

“I was looking at the stuff on sale,” said Walter, exasperated.  “I wanted to get in and out fast. I honestly didn’t see the signs on the wall. Honestly! I swear to God!”

As if pounding a final nail into the coffin of the old man’s hope, the woman said, “The bookkeeping from that sale has been completed.”

Walter: “You mean the home owners have been paid so now you can’t deduct 31 dollars from their share?” The woman didn’t reply. “ It’s not the home owners’ responsibility,” he went on, “it’s your responsibility. Your company was running the sale, you’re the ones who took my credit card.”

“I’m asking you to leave,” said the young man trying to sound tough. He didn’t look the part, but Walter decided to call it quits.

“I’m going to cause Lynn’s of Alameda more than $31 worth of grief!” he vowed impotently as he headed for the door.

“And take your radio,” said the young man.

Walter’s parting words were “Fuck you!" 

He was parked around the corner. As he was getting into his car he noticed the young man taking a photo of his license plate.

By the time he got home he was feeling more ashamed than outraged. He thought about how much grief his temper had cost him over the years. So what if he had been in the right? 

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