WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon testified against political consultant Roger Stone Friday, telling a federal jury that he thought of Stone as the Trump campaign’s liaison to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Bannon, once a high-profile figure in the Trump campaign in the early days of the Trump administration, arrived at the courtroom in the afternoon, wearing a black sport coat and black polo shirt. He told the jury the only reason he was testifying was that he’d been subpoenaed.
While Bannon is one of the most anticipated witnesses at Stone’s trial for allegedly lying to Congress about his efforts to contact WikiLeaks in 2016, he was also one of the briefest, spending less than an hour under direct examination by prosecutors.
He told the court that he considered Stone to be the Trump campaign’s contact person for WikiLeaks, based on what Stone said publicly and their private conversation going back years claiming access to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
At the time, Stone was trying to learn more about hacked emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign that might tank her run against then-candidate Donald Trump. The emails were stolen by Russian agents and shared with WikiLeaks, which released them at critical points in the 2016 election cycle, according to prosecutors.
“I was led to believe he had a relationship with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange,” Bannon testified. At another point, Bannon referred to Stone as the “access point” to Assange.
“He had a relationship, or told me he had a relationship with WikiLeaks,” Bannon said. “It was something I think he would frequently mention or talk about, when we talked about other things.”
At one point in October 2016, when an expected revelation from Assange about Clinton emails proved to be a dud, Bannon sent Stone an email asking, “What was that this morning?”
Bannon said he sent the message to ask why the much-hyped disclosures did not materialize, and also as “a little bit of a heckle — It was twofold.”
Stone replied that Assange was afraid for his safety, but would still end up releasing damaging documents every week.
Stone and Bannon had already known each other for years before Bannon joined the Trump campaign, and they spoke between a half dozen and a dozen times during the campaign, Bannon testified.
After WikiLeaks began releasing hacked data in summer 2016, Stone emailed Bannon, writing that “Trump can still win, but time is running out,” according to a copy of the message shown to jurors. “I know how to win, but it ain’t pretty.”
Asked what Bannon understood Stone’s email to mean Bannon said, “Roger is an expert in the tougher side of politics. When you’re this far behind you’re going to have to use every tool in the tool box … Opposition research, dirty tricks, the kind of things campaigns use when you need to make up some ground.”
Stone, 67, listened intently as he has throughout the trial, occasionally whispering to his lawyers. But he appeared a little weary, sighing and rubbing his eyes.
A longtime confidant of Trump, he has pleaded not guilty, and his attorneys have said any misstatements he made to Congress were unintentional.
On cross examination by Stone’s lawyer Robert Buschel, Bannon conceded that Stone never claimed to him that he had access to WikiLeaks emails.
Buschel tried to ask Bannon, “As you sit here today, you don’t think Roger Stone had inside knowledge or predictions about WikiLeaks, do you?” but prosecutors objected as to the relevance of the question to Stone’s trial and the judge sustained it, ruling Bannon did not have to answer.
Leaving the courthouse, Bannon reiterated that he was “forced to testify.”
Asked how he thought his testimony had gone, he told a phalanx of reporters, “You were in there, you tell me?” before jumping in a black SUV.
Earlier in the day, former radio show host Randy Credico described on the witness stand how Stone urged him not to talk to Congress about their election year conversations, and a text from Stone suggesting Credico’s dog could be harmed if he did.
Stone also is accused of witness tampering for alleging trying to thwart Credico’s testimony to Congress,
Jurors have seen Stone’s words in texts and emails, but Credico described how he understood Stone’s increasingly angry messages, including a reference to the movie The Godfather: Part II, were aimed to convince him to stonewall the House Intelligence Committee investigating election interference.
Prosecutors say Stone, a longtime friend of Trump, lied to protect the president when lawmakers questioned Stone in 2017 about what he’d done during the campaign.
To keep the committee from unraveling those lies, prosecutors have said, Stone needed Credico to keep quiet, and resorted to threats to try to ensure that.
Credico on Friday said Stone influenced his decision to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination at the committee. “A lot of people played a role,” said Credico, “Mr. Stone amongst them.”
Trial evidence shows Stone texted Credico in April 2018: “”You are a rat. A stoolie. You backstab your friends-run your mouth my lawyers are dying Rip you to shreds.” Stone later added, “I am so ready. Let’s get it on. Prepare to die “
At one point, Stone texted Credico he would “take that dog away from you,” according to trial evidence.
Credico said he was “sure” Stone knew how important his therapy dog Bianca was to him when he sent that message. “I have no wife and no kids,” Credico said. “I was with the dog, I’d been around the dog for the previous twelve years.”
But later when questioned by Stone’s defense lawyer, Credico said he never really feared for Bianca’s safety.
Stone, Credico said, “loves dogs” and has two himself.
“I don’t think he would steal a dog. I don’t think he was going to steal the dog,” Credico said. “I know he would have never touched that dog. So it was hyperbole by him.”
In testifying about their conversations about the prospect of Credico’s testifying to Congress, Credico described Stone’s asking him to “do a Frank Pentangeli,” referring to a character from “The Godfather: Part II” — a film image raised repeatedly at the trial.
In the film, when Pentangeli is called to testify at a Senate hearing into the Corleone organized crime family, he sees the family’s godfather Michael Corleone enter the room with Pentangeli’s brother. Pentangeli then testifies that the FBI asked him to make up false stories about Corleone.
Stone’s attorney has suggested the Pentangeli request has an innocent explanation — that Stone was just asking Credico to use his known skills as a comic impressionist to look and sound like Pentangeli.
“There’s a ton of photos and text messages” between Credico and Stone, Credico told the jury Friday. “If I did a Frank Pentangeli and got up and said I don’t know Roger Stone, it wouldn’t make any sense,” Credico said. “If I did a Frank Pentangeli I would look like a fool.”
Credico also said he was worried that if discussed exchanges with Stone about trying to learn more from WikiLeaks, he might become the victim of “some kind of smear job.” He also said he thought there was a risk Stone might publicly name a friend of Credico’s — who had helped arranged a radio interview between Credico and Assange — and draw her in to the political turmoil.
On cross-examination, Stone’s attorney painted Credico as a liar who made Stone believe he had a close connection to Assange.
Credico readily admitted he had lied to Stone over the years, including during their conversations about WikiLeaks and the House investigation: “There were exaggerations, there were lies, there were rebuffs, yes.”
The defense tried to argue that Credico refused to testify before the House committee not because Stone threatened him but because of his own liberal political leanings.
“You did not want to be associated with the Donald Trump campaign?” Buschel asked.
“Absolutely, would you?” Credico replied, adding later: “I did not want to be connected with Donald Trump, at all.”