The long-expected filing of charges against the flamboyant political operative Roger Stone will cause a lot of President Trump’s detractors to believe that the legal noose around the president is tightening. Not necessarily.
It’s not surprising that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reacted to Stone’s arrest by saying: “The charges brought against Mr. Stone have nothing to do with the president.” That’s too categorical a dismissal, but if what she means is that the charges don’t implicate Trump, she’s correct.
Stone is charged with one count of obstruction of an official proceeding, five counts of false statements and one count of witness tampering. The charges in the indictment returned by a federal grand jury relate to Stone’s alleged contacts with WikiLeaks, which released Democratic emails that were hacked by Russian operatives during the campaign.
The indictment also contains these tantalizing assertions: 1) “Stone was contacted by senior Trump campaign officials to inquire about future releases by Organization 1,” a reference to WikiLeaks. 2) “Stone spoke to multiple individuals involved in the Trump campaign about what he claimed to have learned from his intermediary to Organization 1.” 3) “After the July 22, 2016, release of stolen DNC emails by Organization 1, a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information Organization 1 had regarding the Clinton campaign.”
These allegations more than hint at the possibility that figures in the Trump campaign were, at a remove, conspiring with WikiLeaks (and by extension Russia) to harm the Clinton campaign. But was Trump one of them? The indictment doesn’t say so.
But surely, the charges against Stone, like previous indictments of campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, must be viewed as steppingstones along the way to an accusation that Trump engaged in wrongdoing. Isn’t Trump the ultimate target of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation?
Actually, no. Although both Trump and some of his critics seem to think Mueller’s investigation is all about the president, Mueller’s mandate from the Justice Department doesn’t say that. The special counsel is charged with investigating “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
These directions obviously permit Mueller to scrutinize Trump’s conduct and state of knowledge, but the investigation was never narrowly about the president, despite what many people — apparently including Stone — believe. (On Friday, Stone promised that he would not “bear false witness against the president.”)
For now, the president and his defenders can argue that the president is not in Mueller’s sights. Obviously that could change. But no one should assume that Mueller is inexorably proceeding to a devastating accusation against Trump that will lead to the president’s impeachment and removal. Trump’s detractors should keep their wishful thinking under control.