WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Roger Stone, a self-proclaimed Republican “dirty trickster” and ally of US President Donald Trump for 40 years, was arrested on Friday (Jan 25) on charges of lying to Congress about the release of stolen Democratic Party emails during the 2016 campaign.
Stone is one of the closest Trump associates to be charged by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to help win the election.
The 66-year-old veteran political operative was arrested by the FBI in a predawn raid at his Florida home.
The charges against him add to pressure on Trump as the newly installed Democratic majority in the House of Representatives plans to step up investigations of the president while a month-long partial shutdown of the US government over Trump’s demand for funding for a border wall drags on.
“Greatest Witch Hunt in the History of our Country! NO COLLUSION!,” Trump said on Twitter following Stone’s arrest, using his most common slur for the Mueller probe.
Mueller said in court papers that Stone had advance knowledge of a plan by WikiLeaks to release the emails, which some political analysts say may have contributed to Trump’s stunning election defeat of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The indictment refers to coordination between Stone and a senior Trump campaign official, who a source identified as Steve Bannon.
Stone was charged with seven criminal counts, including obstruction of an official proceeding, witness tampering and making false statements.
STONE BLASTS ‘INQUISITION’
In a rowdy scene outside a courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Stone said he had done no wrong.
“After a two-year inquisition the charges today related in no way to Russian collusion, WikiLeaks coordination or any other illegal act in connection with the 2016 campaign,” he told reporters after the hearing, flashing the twin “V for Victory” signs that late President Richard Nixon was famous for.
A crowd chanted “Lock Him Up” - an inversion of the “Lock Her Up” chant that Trump and his surrogates led against Clinton at rallies during the 2016 campaign. Someone played the Beatles song Back In The USSR.
Stone denounced his arrest as politically motivated and complained that arresting agents had threatened his dogs. A judge released him on a US$250,000 (S$330,000) bond and ordered him to limit his travel to South Florida, New York City and Washington.
The indictment showed Stone using language evoking mob bosses – and even cited a “Godfather” movie – as he called an unnamed associate facing FBI inquiries “a rat. A stoolie” in a series of profanity-laced messages.
Stone was an early Trump backer whose reputation as an aggressive political operative dates back to the Watergate scandal of the 1970s when he was working for Nixon. He has a tattoo of the face of the disgraced Republican former president on his back.
WikiLeaks, which is referred to as “Organisation 1” in the indictment, did not respond to a request for comment.
Thirty-five people have pleaded guilty, been indicted or otherwise swept up in the Russia inquiry, which has clouded Trump’s two-year-old presidency.
Those people include former close associates of Trump such as his one-time lawyer Michael Cohen and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort as well as 12 Russian intelligence officers.
White House, press secretary Sarah Sanders said the Stone indictment was unrelated to the president.
“The charges brought against Mr Stone have nothing to do with the president, has nothing to do with the White House,” she told CNN. “The president did nothing wrong.”
The charging documents included new details about the alleged activities of Trump aides, including an incident in which a senior campaign official “was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information Organisation 1 had regarding the Clinton Campaign.”
The indictment referred to an October 2016 email from the “high-ranking Trump campaign official” asking Stone to inquire about future releases of emails by “Organisation 1.”
Stone responded that “Organisation 1” would release “a load every week going forward.”
The high-ranking official is Bannon, Trump’s former campaign chief, according to a person familiar with the matter. Bannon did not respond to a request for comment.
STUMP CALL TO RUSSIA
The interactions with Wikileaks covered in the indictment occurred days before Trump famously called out to Russia in a campaign stump speech for help finding “missing” emails from Clinton’s time as secretary of state, according to Democratic US Representative Adam Schiff.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said on the campaign, a comment that vexed intelligence experts and prompted Democrats to accuse him of urging a foreign country to spy on Americans.
“At the very time that then-candidate Trump was publicly encouraging Russia’s help in acquiring Clinton-related emails, his campaign was privately receiving information about the planned release of stolen Clinton emails,” Schiff said in a statement.
The Kremlin has denied interfering with the 2016 election. .
Stone’s ties to Trump go back decades. Stone has urged Trump to run for president since 1988, was chairman of his presidential exploratory committee in 2000 and was a consultant when Trump considered running in 2012, according to Stone’s 2017 book about Trump’s campaign for the White House.
Stone briefly worked for the Trump campaign but left in August 2015. The campaign said it fired him after he tried to grab too much of the spotlight while Stone insisted that he quit.
Even after Stone left his official position in the campaign, he still played a key promotional role and communicated with people in Trump’s camp.