I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Attack, attack, attack

David Blake Knox

During his tenure as president, Donald Trump used his office to grant executive clemency to more than 200 individuals charged or convicted of federal criminal offences. That may seem like a lot, but it is fewer than many of his predecessors: Bill Clinton, for example, pardoned more than twice that number.

However, Trump’s use of this power differs in some respects from that of previous presidents. Usually, recommendations for clemency come through a special office in the US Department of Justice. In Trump’s case, the vast majority of pardons came from personal recommendations made by an ad hoc group of staff in his administration, and most of the pardons and commutations that he granted went to people with whom he had personal and political connections. Some of those are now active and playing central roles in the current campaign to re-elect the former president. One of the most significant of these is Roger Stone.

I met Stone when I was filming a profile of Donald Trump for the BBC almost twenty-five years ago. At that time, Trump claimed to be considering running for the US presidency as a Reform Party candidate, and Stone was acting as his chief political adviser. I was introduced to him on Trump’s private plane – ‘Trump Force One’ – on our way to film in Atlantic City.

Like Trump, Stone was deeply tanned with an orange glow, and, like Trump, his hair seemed fixed in position and unable to move freely. But, unlike Trump, Stone had the physique of a dedicated body-builder. Apparently, his physical appearance was the result of years in which he had followed a strict regime of strenuous exercise, Chinese herbs, breathing therapies and acupuncture. He was dressed immaculately, and with an extraordinary attention to detail. He told me that every item of his clothing was hand-stitched by his ‘custom tailor’ to fit the contours of his muscular frame. He also claimed to observe strict and uncompromising dress codes (or ‘rules’ as he preferred to call them): wearing Madras jackets in summer, velvet blazers in winter and seersucker suits for the rest of the year.

Stone told me that he regarded the ‘well-cut suit’ as a form of armour, and thought that its colour was critical. Blue, he believed, conveyed a sense of authority; black should only be worn ‘by chauffeurs or undertakers’; and brown was ‘the colour of shit’. Stone also considered cheap underwear to be ‘a greater mistake with men than with women’. He favoured ‘tastefully striped cotton boxer shorts and advised against tight-fitting ‘banana hammocks’ because he ‘liked my junk to breathe’.

Stone has characterised his approach to life as ‘dressing British, and thinking Yiddish’. He has been involved in conservative politics from a very young age as an activist, consultant and lobbyist. Indeed, according to CNN’s former legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, Stone has been ‘this almost crazy guy who shows up at every key moment in recent American history’ – rather like Zelig in Woody Allen’s movie of that name.

Stone has specialised in what he calls ‘opposition research’: in other words, digging up the dirt on his political opponents. He summed up his tactics to me as: ‘Admit nothing. Deny everything. Attack, attack, attack.’ According to Stone, the objective was to launch offensives on so many different fronts that his political opponents would not only feel besieged but confused and demoralised by the remorseless onslaught. He boasted to me that he had directly affected the result of the 2000 presidential election in Florida. George W Bush had won the state by a margin of only 537 votes out of almost six million ballots cast. Al Gore, his opponent, demanded a recount – as was his legal right – and Stone was part of the team that was dispatched to Florida to help ensure the Republican candidate’s success. Bush’s subsequent victory, he told me, was achieved by him ‘fomenting a riot’ outside the counting centre to prevent any further recount.

The name that Stone sometimes likes to call himself – “The Dirty Trickster” – could almost have come from the Batman comic books. So I was not surprised when he told me that his favourite character in fiction was The Joker. Like his hero, Stone’s choice of costume was highly stylised and verging on self-parody. His favourite quote from The Joker, he said, was: ‘Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.’ Throughout his career, he seems to have revelled in such chaos. He seems to enjoy making liberal flesh creep, and, like The Joker, is driven by some innate wish to confront and alarm the Establishment. Trump has a somewhat similar effect on Democrats and their supporters in the liberal media.

Despite such subversive impulses, Stone has also managed to work for a succession of mainstream politicians, including President Richard Nixon. Indeed, he became the youngest person to be named by the Senate Committee investigating the break-in to the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington. That break-in and its subsequent cover-up led, eventually, to Nixon’s resignation, but Stone continues to admire the disgraced president. He told me that he owned the world’s largest collection of Nixon memorabilia, and even had a large tattoo of the former president’s face on his back. When he told me this, I assumed he was joking, but I later saw for myself that he wasn’t. This physical tattoo seems to exemplify his emotional commitment to a Nixonian form of ‘total politics’, and the belief he shares with his mentor in win-at-all-costs strategies.

Stone is credited with identifying the phenomenon of “Reagan Democrats” in the lead-up to the 1980 presidential election. He called them the ‘blue-collar Catholics and working class voters’ who normally supported Democrat candidates but felt patronised or ignored by that party. Winning this demographic group proved crucial to Reagan’s Republican victory. It has also proved one of Trump’s most reliable power bases.

In the years that followed Reagan’s election, Stone became a partner in a highly successful lobbying company in Washington. According to one journalist, his company brought lobbying to “a new level of splash and show business and money and glitz”. For some, his success seemed to embody the festering corruption of the political environment on Capitol Hill. Ironically, his long-time friend, Donald Trump, would later claim that his mission was to “drain that swamp.”

Stone’s career received a major setback in 1996. He was working at the time on Bob Dole’s ‘family values’ presidential campaign when the National Enquirer revealed that he and his wife had placed personal ads in a magazine called Swing Fever. It appeared that a ‘hot insatiable lady’, who preferred ‘hard and deep’ sex and her ‘trim and muscular’ husband wanted to meet up with some ‘exceptionally well-hung single men’. This was accompanied by several very revealing photographs.

At first Stone denied that he had been responsible for the ads. He claimed that they had been posted by a disgruntled ‘domestic employee’ whom he had discharged after repeated instances of ‘substance abuse’, and who had somehow managed to gain access to his computer and his post-office box key. It took several years before he was prepared to admit that his indignant denials had all been fake and the ads were indeed authentic.

This scandal proved pivotal in his subsequent career: he was forced to resign his position as one of Dole’s senior consultants and from then on was regarded as toxic in many of Washington’s political circles. ‘I’m a conservative,’ he shrugged as he recounted the story to me. ‘But I’m not part of the Christian Right, and I’ve never claimed to be. I like sex in all its forms. If that’s a crime, shoot me.’ He believed that, since he was not seeking elected office, his personal life and predilections should have remained private and his own business.

It was clear to me that Stone loved to talk in sound bites, and the more provocative they were,the better he seemed to like them. Like Trump, he enjoyed coining crude and dismissive nicknames for his political opponents. He may have treated politics as a sport, but it was one in which he said his goal was to inflict a ‘crushing, ignominious defeat’ on those he considered to be his enemies. Like Trump, he viewed democratic elections as a form of popular entertainment and he believed that only a ‘policy wonk’ or a ‘left militant’ would fail to grasp that fundamental truth. But if politics was a game for Stone, it was one that he played with rigour and discipline as well as with an obvious relish.

He told me that he liked working for Trump. ‘He’s a conservative, but he’s also a libertarian,’ Stone said. ‘He wants to keep Government out of the boardroom – and out of the bedroom too. I can relate to that.’ At the time of our filming, Trump appeared to hold fairly progressive or liberal views on a number of social issues, such as gay rights and abortion. Since then, his views on those issues appear to have changed a good deal – indeed, to have been reversed – and as a result he has been able to count upon the consistent support of the large and well-organised evangelical Christian voting bloc. It remains something of a mystery why Christians should so strongly support a man who once revelled in his reputation for licentiousness and whose commitment to their religion appears unconvincing to many and driven by political expediency. My own view is that Trump’s beliefs have seldom been inspired by any ideological factors, but are focused almost entirely on his personal desires, whims and self-interest. For that reason, I think it is mistaken to brand him as a racist, or a fascist, or any other kind of ‘ist’ – apart, that is, from narcissist. That might help to explain his recent flip-flopping on the issue of abortion rights.

Stone reckoned that Reform Party candidates had split the conservative vote and cost the Republican Party the presidential elections in 1992 and again in 1996. There is good reason to believe that he encouraged Trump to consider running as a Reform candidate in 2000 simply as a ‘spoiler’: a ‘false flag’ manoeuvre intended to confuse the electorate. The purpose of this strategy may have been to protect the core Republican vote and to undermine the likelihood of Independent voters supporting the Reform Party in the Presidential election. If that were indeed the case, it proved highly effective: the eventual Reform candidate in 2000, Pat Buchanan, received less than half a percent of the total votes cast and did not affect its eventual outcome.

In any case, Stone had a very different and longer-term ambition for Trump. It seems he was the first to propose that Trump should run as a Republican candidate for the presidency, and he has described his eventual nomination as a ‘hostile take-over’ of that party – a characterisation that seems in recent months to have been fully vindicated. Stone featured prominently in the early stages of Trump’s election campaign in 2016. However, the two men appeared to part ways before the election proper began.

There remains some doubt as to whether Stone was fired or resigned voluntarily from Trump’s official campaign. He was reported to have been dismayed by some of Trump’s misogynistic comments; while Trump was said to have been offended by the frequent references in the press to Stone being the ‘brains’ behind his campaign. Either way, Trump was quick to draw their separation to the attention of the US media. He knew that Stone was still considered radioactive by many Republicans and may have concluded that he needed to establish some sense of distance from him.

In any case, Roger Stone delights in the sort of work that is best done by stealth, and it is now clear that he continued to work backstage for Trump during the 2016 campaign, providing him with some of the mud that he was able to sling at his opponents. Stone’s contribution included writing a book in which he branded Bill Clinton as a serial rapist and Hilary, Trump’s election opponent, as an enabler of her husband’s alleged sex crimes. During the campaign, he described the couple as a ‘penicillin-resistant syphilis in the American body politic’. There is little doubt that Stone was prepared to go to considerable lengths to find dirt to dish on the Clintons. He is also alleged to have been the conduit through which confidential information was passed from Wikileaks to Trump’s campaign.

In January 2019, heavily-armed FBI agents – supported by armoured vehicles, K-9 handlers, helicopters and amphibious units – conducted a raid on Stone’s home in Fort Lauderdale. A camera crew from CNN appeared to have been tipped off about the raid and was permitted by the FBI to film as dozens of agents escorted Stone handcuffed and barefoot from his home. He had been arrested on a number of criminal charges that apparently stemmed from Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. There was, however, a sense that the drama of the raid was disproportionate to Stone’s alleged offences and designed rather to fulfil a political purpose.

A similar sense of performative and partisan justice has emerged from some of the recent indictments that have been brought against Donald Trump – such as the grossly excessive figure of $454 million that he was initially required to post as the bond for his alleged civil fraud offences. The most significant of the current legal actions against Trump have been led by district attorneys who are elected Democrats. For many Republicans, this only reinforces a sense that the US justice system is being manipulated – ineptly – for obvious political purposes. If this series of indictments was intended to undermine popular support for Trump among the MAGA faithful, it appears to have produced precisely the opposite effect.

After his own arrest in 2019, Stone had appeared relaxed and confident that he would be proven innocent. He even spoke humorously about his future trial: ‘It’s rare,’ he told the press, ‘that I’m accused of something I’m not guilty of.’ After his arraignment, he appeared on the steps outside Miami’s federal courthouse surrounded by members of the Proud Boys – the alt-right militant group – who were vigorously protesting his innocence.

Despite their support, Stone was later found guilty of obstruction of justice, making false statements to Congress and witness tampering. Curiously, these offences had very little – if anything – to do with Russia, Wikileaks, the Mueller investigation or even the 2016 presidential election. Once again, it seemed that Stone had been targeted for what were primarily political reasons.

When he was waiting to be sentenced, Stone engaged in fund-raising for his legal fees, which he claimed would amount to around $2 million. He sold T-shirts and baseball caps with slogans that proclaimed his innocence, and he appeared at various meet-and-greet events, At one of these, held in a strip joint called the Paper Moon Gentleman’s Club, he was accompanied by Kristin M Davis; also known as the “Manhattan Madam”, she once ran a prostitution ring that catered for an elite and well-connected clientele. In 2000, Ms Davis ran for the governorship of New York state as a Libertarian Party candidate. On that occasion, Stone had acted as her campaign manager. He also advised the Republican candidate in the same election, but denied that there was any possible conflict of interest. Once again, there had been allegations that his purpose in managing Ms Davis’s campaign was tactical and intended to sow discord and confusion in the ranks of those opposed to the Republican Party candidate.

Soon after his appearance at the Paper Moon strip club, Stone was interviewed on TV. He claimed to be feeling ‘pretty good’ about his future because he had ‘taken Jesus Christ as my personal saviour’ and was putting ‘my faith in God’. He was even reported to have prayed for his salvation with Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and a leading evangelical pastor. I have to admit that I learned of his conversion with a degree of scepticism, but he has maintained since then that it is genuine.

As it turned out, there was also a secular source of salvation for Stone. Prosecutors from the Justice Department had recommended that he should be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison. Trump tweeted that this proposed sentence was ‘horrible and very unfair’. He was not the only one to reach that conclusion. Soon after his tweet, Trump’s appointee as US attorney general, William Barr, also ruled that the recommended sentence was too harsh. Four of the federal prosecutors promptly resigned from the case. When sentence was later passed, Stone was given a jail term of 40 months. Though this was a good deal less than the prosecution had sought, but Stone still described it as a ‘death sentence’.

Stone claimed that he had been placed under great pressure by the FBI to give evidence that would implicate Trump in wrongdoings relating to the Mueller investigation. By testifying against the president, Stone would have been following the same plea-bargaining route taken by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer. Instead, Stone proclaimed – repeatedly and in public – that the president could rely on him not to ‘play Judas’. Some journalists believed that his purpose in stating this on multiple occasions was to imply that he knew enough to inflict great damage on the president: in other words, he was signalling to Trump that he was ‘owed’ by him. Stone rejected this interpretation of his motives, claiming he had simply refused to ‘bear false witness’ against his ‘friend of 40 years’. The FBI, he claimed, had wanted him to be ‘the ham in their ham sandwich’, a role he insisted he was not prepared to play.

Either way, it all worked out along predictable lines. Just a few days before he was due to report to prison, President Trump announced that he was commuting Stone’s sentence with immediate effect. That decision was not unexpected: Trump had indicated that Stone would never serve time even before the original sentence was passed. Nonetheless, the commutation gave rise to a storm of media outrage. Much of this was also fairly predictable: ‘The Stone commutation isn’t just a gift to an old friend,’ Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s former legal analyst, wrote. ‘It is a reward for keeping his mouth shut.’ Toobin had displayed his personal fascination with Stone over many years, even accompanying him on one occasion to a swingers’ club. (His own judgement was somewhat undermined – to say the least – during the 2020 presidential election when, in a bizarre episode, Toobin was witnessed masturbating during an open Zoom meeting.)

On this occasion, however, Toobin believed that Trump’s decision to pardon Stone was ‘corruption on top of cronyism’. Robert Mueller, the special counsel who had investigated the (unproven) allegations of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia, was also moved to break his customary silence, and observed that Stone ‘remains a convicted felon, and rightly so’.

Stone celebrated his freedom by promising to do ‘anything necessary’ to re-elect Trump as president, though he added the proviso that this would be ‘short of breaking the law’. Given his track record, that promise can only have provoked and further enraged his political opponents. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Stone was to the forefront of those insisting that Biden’s victory had only been achieved through widespread fraud. He also alleged that Trump’s defeat was the result of a far-reaching CIA conspiracy. (Not so long ago, it was left-wing activists who demonised the CIA and FBI; now the denunciation is more likely to come from their one-time supporters in the Republican party.)

Stone has also been accused of helping to organise the events of January 6th, 2021 – when a mob stormed the Capitol building and threatened to hang Mike Pence, the out-going vice-president, for his refusal to declare Joe Biden’s election invalid. On the day before, Stone had appeared on the platform of a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally at which he assured the crowd that their actions could still prevent America from ‘stepping off into a thousand years of darkness’. He told them that he would be with them ‘shoulder to shoulder’ the following day. The ensuing riot certainly raised some memories of the disturbances that Stone told me he had fomented in Florida some twenty years earlier. However, there has been no evidence to connect him directly with the storming of the Capitol, and, unlike some of his Proud Boy supporters, he has not been charged with or imprisoned for any offence related to that event.

It has also been claimed that Stone was involved in illegal attempts to reverse the outcome of the presidential election in Georgia. However, he was not named in the criminal indictment brought by Georgia’s DA, Fani Willis, against Trump and eighteen of his associates. More recently, he has been accused of conspiring to assassinate two Democratic members of Congress. But the tape recording that it was claimed could prove his involvement in this alleged conspiracy has never been made public and substantial doubts have been raised about its authenticity – or even its existence.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that Trump would turn back to Stone in the run-up to the 2024 election, and, once again, Stone has proved more than ready to be of service. He has boasted that he was the first to doubt Ron DeSantis’s future loyalty to Trump, DeSantis’s former mentor – though he has acknowledged that it was Trump who came up with the (feeble) nickname of ‘DeSanctimonious’. But, perhaps, the most significant role Stone has played in the current election campaign is to introduce the Ukrainian war to Trump’s playbook – and this has become, in the words of one commentator, ‘a foreign policy litmus test’ for the MAGA core of Trump’s supporters.

Stone has repeatedly questioned why Biden’s government is sending billions of dollars to Ukraine at the same time that the USA’s southern border remains, according to Stone, unsealed and many US veterans are penniless and are currently living ‘on the streets’. Stone has also claimed that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is the direct result of Joe Biden’s weakness and would never have occurred if Trump were still in the White House. This opposition to US support of Ukraine – along with his open scepticism about the value of NATO – are some of the factors that give Stone’s continuing closeness to Trump a genuine geopolitical significance. However, Trump’s apparent lack of political conviction has enabled him to appear to shift his position on this issue. Once again, it appears that his loyal supporters are prepared to overlook this apparent lack of consistency or principle.

What often unites Stone’s friends and foes is their shared recognition of his dynamic and compelling personality. Indeed, the mainstream media can seem, at times, to attribute demonic powers of persuasion and manipulation to him: one prominent liberal journalist has even admitted that he avoids direct contact with Stone out of concern that he might be seduced by his personal charm.

I can understand some of that concern. When I said goodbye to Roger Stone almost twenty-five years ago, after we had finished filming with Donald Trump in Atlantic City, he was on his way to spend the weekend at Trump’s golf resort and home at Mar-a-Lago. He invited me to join him there and promised that I would enjoy an exciting few days. I had found Stone entertaining, outrageous and, at times, disturbing company, and I must confess that I was tempted to accept his invitation. But I had other commitments, and, on balance, it seemed wiser for me to decline.


David Blake Knox’s last book, Face Down, on the abduction and killing of the German businessman Thomas Niedermayer, was reissued by New Island in a new edition last year. It was accompanied by a major television documentary, made for RTÉ, the BBC, ARTE and Screen Ireland.



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