Roger Stone has been here before. Exactly two decades earlier, when a Florida recount threatened to undo Republican George W. Bush’s less-than-1,000-vote lead in the Sunshine State and hand the 2000 presidential election to Democrat Al Gore, the elders of the GOP drafted Stone — a notorious dirty trickster with roots in the criminal presidency of Richard Nixon. (Stone had only worked on an aborted third-party campaign in the 2000 run-up — a billionaire named Donald Trump.)
Stone quickly set up shop in vote-rich, majority-Democratic Miami-Dade County. On the morning of Nov. 22, 2000, government workers expecting to conduct a recount there were surprised by an angry mob of hundreds of people storming the building, and with radio DJs urging more people from Miami’s conservative Cuban community to pour down. The vanguard of this counterrevolution, though, was a gaggle of well-dressed young white men with deep ties to the Republican establishment, which earned the event its notorious moniker, “the Brooks Brothers riot.”
The outrageous part — still shocking, 20 years later — is that Stone’s mini-coup against American democracy worked. The Miami vote counters — intimidated and lacking adequate security — left and never did conduct that full recount. The shenanigans allowed a GOP-heavy Supreme Court to declare Bush the Florida winner by 537 votes and become America’s 43rd president, while Stone went on to a new millennium of notoriety by advising the 45th.
So why would anybody be surprised over new evidence that longtime Trump insider Stone was up to his eyeballs, if not higher, in urging on the protests that became the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill, which left five people dead and came too close for comfort to finishing the work that Stone had initiated with the Brooks Brothers riot: the destruction of U.S. democracy.
This weekend, a flurry of new reports establishes that Stone, recently pardoned by Trump after his felony conviction in Robert Mueller’s probe of 2016 Russian election interference, spent a busy two days in the hours leading up to the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Much of it was in the presence of key members of the violent Proud Boys group, whose leaders now face criminal charges in connection with Jan. 6 and its run-up. ABC News released a video of Stone mingling with Oath Keepers, including one armed with a baseball bat, outside a D.C. hotel right before the rally that preceded the attack. Separately, the website Just Security scraped new footage from the right-wing social media platform Parler showing a series of contacts in December between Stone and top Proud Boys such as its national leader Enrique Tarrio — who didn’t take part in the insurrection after he was busted on weapons charges — and Ethan Nordean, who allegedly did breach the Capitol and has been charged by the feds with plotting the attack.
“This is nothing less than an epic struggle for the future of this country between dark and light, between the godly and the godless, between good and evil,” Stone — flanked by Proud Boys security — told a D.C. Rally to Save America on the night before the attack. “And we will win this fight or America will step off into a thousand years of darkness. We dare not fail. I will be with you tomorrow, shoulder-to-shoulder.” It’s important to note there’s no evidence that Stone attended the subsequent Jan. 6 rally or attack, and he has told ABC he was unaware of pending violence and did not foment the insurrection.
But it is also clear that — just one month and one day after one of the darkest afternoons in U.S. history — there is a lot of work ahead for investigators who still need to untangle more threads than a Navajo prayer rug. These are the strands of arguably the most significant conspiracy in American history, including Nixon’s Watergate. On Tuesday, the Senate will begin hearing Trump’s unprecedented second impeachment trial — doomed, seemingly, to another acquittal by Republican senators who remain terrified of their own voters — as the probe of Jan. 6 moves forward on two parallel but oddly separated tracks, like trains racing on opposite ends of a vast rail yard.
On one side, the FBI — slowly, methodically, and appropriately — is using video, social media posts, and tips to conduct a dragnet at the bottom of the food chain, the foot soldiers who were caught on film breaching the Capitol or foolishly bragging about it. So far, nearly 200 are facing federal charges, and these numbers continue to grow. On the other side, House impeachment managers must mount a speedy legal assault at the very top of the pyramid — demonstrating that Trump himself incited the rioters with his own words and deeds, leading right up to his midday rally speech where he urged the throng to march on the Capitol and “show strength.”
But the future of unraveling the plot against the 2020 presidential election — and ensuring both justice and accountability as America struggles to regroup — lies in the middle tracks. What did the president know about the plans for Jan. 6, and when did he know it? Just as important, if not more so, who were the next layer of players? — from White House aides to Trump’s motley crew of consiglieres to the business people who funded these efforts to the militia types who rallied their troops. It’s imperative that a newly made-over U.S. Justice Department dive deeply into these layers of criminality. Conspiracy is the hardest crime to prove, yet with each passing day, the money trail, the new evidence of coordinated meetings, and the other clues all point to a plot that originates with the former president.
There are many avenues here, but let’s go down one: The pre-Jan. 6 activities of Stone and Trump’s disgraced former national security Michael Flynn, as well as Trump’s eleventh-hour pardons of the two men. On Dec. 8, Trump issued a full pardon to Flynn, whose saga of twice pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts to Russia following Trump’s 2016 election dragged on throughout the ex-president’s entire term. At the time, many questioned whether the pardon was a corrupt bargain — a reward for keeping other Team Trump secrets — but Flynn’s freedom has turned out to be more than anyone bargained for.
Unshackled right at the moment when Trump’s feeble efforts in the courts and state legislatures to undo President Joe Biden’s victory were unraveling, Flynn immediately went to work. He urged Trump to consider declaring martial law to thwart Biden from claiming his election victory and was rewarded with a prime speaking gig at that Jan. 5 D.C. event that also featured Stone, where he told the crowd littered with the next day’s insurrectionists that, “This country is awake. ... We will not stand for a lie.” The soon-to-be-ex-president, for his part, toyed with bringing Flynn back into his administration, according to the New York Times, as chief of staff or even FBI director.
Was Trump’s Dec. 8 pardon of Flynn a quid pro quo not just for past silence but future help, and would that cross the line into criminality? And if so, what are we to make of Trump’s pardon for Stone — whose prison sentence had already been commuted by the then-president in July — that was issued on Dec. 23? As Ryan Goodman and Justin Hendrix noted in their Just Security piece, Stone boasted on Parler just five days after the pardon that he met with Trump, thanked him — and offered advice on how to prevent Biden from being declared the winner. Stone also stepped up his highly visible activities on behalf of what allies called “Stop the Steal.”
Again, this is just one avenue. Some other questions that have grown louder in recent days: What are we to make of the increasing evidence from social media posts of a flurry of pre-Jan. 6 meetings involving folks such as pro-Trump business leaders like the My Pillow guy, Mike Lindell, Rudy Giuliani and the other diehard members of Trump’s legal team, and possibly even members of the ex-president’s immediate family and congressional allies? Where do Trump’s pressure-packed phone calls to election officials in Georgia and possibly other states fit in? What of 45′s last-ditch efforts to revamp the Justice Department, which failed, and the Pentagon, which succeeded — just ahead of its lackadaisical response to Jan. 6. And who gave the money behind all of this?
Trump’s impeachment trial won’t result in a conviction, and yet it could also become a giant step toward justice. As the gavel approaches, House impeachment managers are racing to strengthen their case that Trump played the key role in inciting the insurrection. When they are done in the coming weeks, they will have gifted America a road map, and the Justice Department is where the rubber will really hit the road. In 2021, incoming Attorney General Merrick Garland and his team must decide whether to enter the uncharted waters of criminal charges against a former U.S president.
The case for a felony criminal conspiracy involving not just Trump but some of the bold-faced names of the Trump years grows stronger every day. As this evidence mounts, the greatest obstacle seems less the facts and more America’s modern history of cowardice or worse when it comes to seeking justice and accountability for the people at or near the very top. In hindsight, Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon didn’t so much heal America as clear a path for the fresh wounds of Iran-Contra, the lack of prosecutions for everything from torture to Wall Street malfeasance in the 2000s, and finally this mess, in a nation where an absence of tension has been badly confused with the presence of justice.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the news out of Washington in recent days — mainly because the new crew seems willing and able to learn from the mistakes of the past. On COVID-19 relief, for example, Team Biden gets that it’s better — politically but mainly practically — to use 51 votes to get something right rather than tank the economic recovery just to please editorial writers drunk on phony bipartisanship. This is a tougher test. The din on the right and from weak-kneed centrists to move on from Jan. 6 will grow louder, but this cancer on America can only be cured with strength, not silence.
When we pretended that Roger Stone’s Brooks Brothers riot of 2000 was no big deal and not the car crash of democracy that it actually was, we also paved a clear highway to the nightmare of Jan. 6. If we look the other way this time, God only knows what the final carnage of the American Experiment might look like.
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