World·Analysis

Why this key line from Roger Stone's indictment could shine a bright light on Trump

What Donald Trump knew about his 2016 election team's outreach with WikiLeaks might be a lot more than he has let on, former federal prosecutors say, pointing to an unusually crafted phrase in the indictment of his longtime friend and campaign adviser.

2 words in Mueller's new court filing offer a clue pointing at president's role, experts say

U.S. President Donald Trump's former campaign adviser Roger Stone, right, was arrested and indicted by a grand jury on charges brought by special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday. The indictment alleges Stone co-ordinated with WikiLeaks to seek emails stolen in a hack that would be damaging to Trump's Democratic opponent in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton. (Yuri Gripas, Joe Skipper/Reuters)

If Donald Trump ordered his 2016 campaign team to solicit WikiLeaks for damaging information that would help him win the U.S. presidential election, special counsel Robert Mueller already knows it.

At least so say legal experts, pointing to an unusually crafted phrase in the indictment of Trump's longtime friend and adviser.

The line in question comes from the 24-page filing on Roger Stone, a Trump confidant who surrendered to FBI agents on Friday in a dawn raid of his Florida home. That same morning, a grand jury empanelled by Mueller's office charged Stone with seven counts, including obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

The charges stem from Stone's connection to WikiLeaks, the organization that released stolen Democratic emails taken by Russian hackers to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. Stone, a self-described political dirty trickster who once boasted about having a direct line to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, now denies he contacted Assange.

Seeking to distance Trump from the arrest on Friday, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders told CNN: "This has nothing to do with the president."

To legal analysts parsing Stone's indictment on Friday, it appears harder to make that case. The Stone filing is the most direct link yet between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign, bringing Mueller's Russian collusion investigation closer to the president, said former federal prosecutor Harry Sandick.

"It's like in the Wizard of Oz. Ignore the man behind the curtain," he said. "But we all see you there."

Stone walks out triumphantly at a federal building in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., following a brief appearance in court on Friday. Stone was arrested in the U.S. special counsel's Russia investigation and indicted on seven counts. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)

Several experts noted the same odd sentence construction on the fourth page of Stone's charging document as a signal pointing to either Trump or his family members. In a paragraph describing the July 2016 leak of stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee, the indictment states:

"[A] senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information Organization 1 [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign."

Sandick recited the passage again, landing on the curious wording.

"A senior Trump campaign official," he said, "was directed?"

"That's artful drafting," he said.

Sandick noted the conspicuous use of passive voice — saying someone "was directed" to do something, versus using the active voice by saying someone directed someone else to perform the task — as a big no-no in legal writing, due to its lack of specificity.

Lawyers tend to avoid that kind of weasel-worded construction. Unless, Sandick said, there's a particular reason to fudge the grammar.

"The idea is they're trying to shield some person's identity. And so that makes us wonder, whose identity are they shielding?"

(CBC)

The list of possibilities isn't long. Outside of the president himself or members of his family, not many people in candidate Trump's circle would have had the authority to direct a "senior Trump campaign official" to do anything.

"So it appears likely that it was Trump," said Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general with the Department of Justice. "If it wasn't, it's quite a tease — and I don't think Mueller is the teasing sort."

Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, agreed that Mueller could have easily described the person as a campaign official or used another identifier, instead of avoiding a description at all.

"That tells me either that it's someone whose identity would be easy to decipher, and whose identity they want to protect, such as 'the candidate,'" she said. 

Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and criminal-law scholar at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, praised the Stone indictment as a "masterwork" of careful wording.

"The reason there's passive voice there is to obscure something. Someone 'was directed.' But who's doing the directing? They didn't even say 'Person 3' or anything like that."

Roger Stone raid caught by CNN camera:

CNN was in the area of Roger Stone's home in Fort Lauderdale early Friday when the FBI arrived. 0:51

Mueller didn't even have to reveal that a senior Trump official "was directed" by anyone to contact Stone at all. He could have merely said a senior Trump official contacted Stone, skipping over the idea that a person issued a direction.

"So they're putting the breadcrumb in there that the senior Trump official wasn't at the top of the chain in that action."

Analyzing the sharply drafted indictments by Mueller's team is as much an exercise in studying what it discloses as noticing what it omits.

One theory is that Mueller deliberately withheld saying who Stone spoke with to hide what his team knows.

Independent journalist Marcy Wheeler, who writes an influential national security blog, also suggested that the Stone indictment would have been approved by acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, who reportedly drew the president's ire the last time he allowed prosecutors to identify Trump as "Individual 1."

Stone says he will plead not guilty to the charges. He claims the investigation is a political hoax and reiterated on Friday that he would never testify against the president.

Stone is shown on Sept. 26, 2017, leaving a House intelligence committee hearing in Washington. The indictment alleges that Stone lied to the committee, among other charges. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Although Stone has not been charged with conspiracy, Mueller can still charge him in succession.

Stone's indictment cites a trove of text messages and emails that seem to indicate strategic co-ordination on core campaign messaging between Stone and WikiLeaks. In an Aug. 2, 2016 exchange outlined in the document, a contact from the outlet suggests spreading stories about Hillary Clinton's health, using her initials "HRC."

"Would not hurt to start suggesting HRC old, memory bad, has stroke," the contact writes. In the days soon after, conspiracy claims began to spread about Clinton's poor health.

On Oct. 7, 2016, the day the Washington Post broke the story about Trump bragging about groping women on the Access Hollywood tape, WikiLeaks released a batch of stolen emails from Clinton's campaign chairman. The data dump came within an hour of the story, raising suspicions about whether it was timed to overshadow Trump's negative press.

According to the indictment, Stone received a text message shortly after.

"Well done," it read.

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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