What Roger Stone knows about Trump’s strategy (he’s winging it), and the efforts to take the candidate down
By Janet Reitman
Republican strategist Roger Stone has been called a “self-admitted hit man for the GOP” and the “boastful black prince of Republican sleaze.” Illustration by Victor Juhasz
Depending on whom you talk to, Roger Stone, the veteran GOP strategist and consigliere to a long line of Republicans, most recently Donald Trump, could be one of the sleaziest operatives in American politics, or the most effective. He has played a role in no fewer than nine presidential campaigns, starting with Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election bid, where he cut his teeth “trafficking in the black arts,” as he’s put it. He’s lobbied for casino operators, consulted with Ukrainian politicians, was instrumental in stopping the 2000 Florida recount in Miami by orchestrating an angry mob of Republicans in pinstriped suits, and helped destroy the career of Eliot Spitzer by exposing his relationship with a prostitute. He has been described, in consistently unflattering terms, as, among other things: the “king of dirty tricks,” a “self-admitted hit man for the GOP,” the “boastful black prince of Republican sleaze” and “a little rat” — albeit one with a closet full of bespoke suits who drives a sleek silver Jaguar, one of six he has owned.
“I like them ’cause they’re sexy,” he tells me on a recent balmy Saturday afternoon in South Florida, where he has lived for 15 years. Stone, whose frequently outré tweets — he recently called CNN commentator Ana Navarro “dumber than dogshit” — have gotten him banned from two of the three major cable news channels, spends a good portion of lunch talking about this situation, which he describes as “Nazi-like” (and then notes that the left doesn’t have a monopoly on Nazi references). But he moves on to discussing virtually every facet of contemporary politics as he eases the Jag into the driveway of his office, which is housed in a faceless mini-industrial district. The three-room space offers a visual archive of the past 40 years of American politics, dominated by Richard Nixon. Nixon, in fact, is everywhere: on wall posters, portraits, hand puppets, salt and pepper shakers, ping-pong paddles, rolling papers. There are Nixon bongs. There’s a Nixon hash pipe. “There’s a project I’m working on in Northern California where some friends and I have our licenses and permits for a strain of marijuana called ‘Tricky Dick.’ You smoke it, you immediately become paranoid and want to go to a Chinese restaurant,” he jokes. Stone is very charming — which, of course, is part of the game. “Be nice to me,” he says. “Write something that makes me look bad, they’ll find your body — or rather, they won’t find it.”
Talk to me about how the dark art of political attacks and dirty tricks have changed since you entered politics.
Well, some tactics are pretty much the same then as now. I mean, 200 years ago, Andrew Jackson’s rivals printed handbills that accused Jackson’s wife of bigamy. Now, the National Enquirer says that Ted Cruz had five mistresses. What’s changed politics is technology — it’s made it much easier to disseminate information.
Cruz accuses you of a whole range of dirty tricks — from planting that National Enquirer story to controlling what gets published on Drudge. What’s this about?
It shows I’ve succeeded in getting into this man’s head. Look, “dirty trickster” is a pejorative, obviously. I like to win for my clients, and I’m prepared to do whatever I can to make sure they win, short of breaking the law. Politics ain’t beanbag. This idea that a political campaign is a genteel and civil proceeding is not true. This is a no-holds-barred fight for the presidency of the United States. But no, I did not plant the story at the National Enquirer, and no, Ted Cruz does not have an iota of proof that I did. I’m a convenient whipping boy for Tricky Ted. Though I do find it somewhat humorous that Ted Cruz is whining about dirty tricks.
What happened between you and Trump — you were part of his campaign, and then you quit. Why the breakup?
I wouldn’t call it a breakup — I didn’t resign because I don’t like him. I resigned because it became very clear that Donald had his own vision of how to do this. He was going to be his own strategist and run a completely communications-based campaign. There is no polling, no targeting, no analytics, no writing shop, no TV or radio commercials, no voter mailing, no targeted operations, no opposition research — all the staples of a modern campaign. He wasn’t prepared to do any of those. And I disagreed with that setup, so I resigned. I just would have ended up fighting with him. But I will say that he’s been proved right: You can do it for free — if you have the celebrity.
The New York Times, among others, has accused Trump of trying to “blame the system” for whatever ground he’s lost. Do you think he’s been robbed?
He’s in the process of being robbed. What is happening is fundamentally undemocratic — but it can be defeated with a well-oiled delegate operation. The Trump campaign didn’t have a real delegate operation before because of a belief that after he won the March primaries, it would all be over. And he believed this because his campaign advisers told him there would be no convention fight. That’s a product of inexperience by his staff, who set a false level of expectation.
You’ve been warning that the party establishment will try to use this kind of chicanery to maneuver the nomination away from Trump — all of it happening before the first ballot. Can you explain the scenario?
This is what I call the Big Steal. I don’t mean Trump falls short of 1,237 delegates and they won’t give him the nomination. What I’ve said is, Trump has the 1,237 votes until they unseat his delegates somewhere or play some other legal trickery to steal it from him. And they’ll do it in two ways: by planting their own people — what I call Trojan horse delegates — in the slots won by Trump, and by adopting rules for the convention that won’t favor Trump. The Republican National Convention is not ruled by state or federal law, or by the U.S. courts — it’s ruled by its own rules. It can do whatever it wants. And what we’ve found is that party bosses from a number of key states have been quietly planting establishment stooges in important slots. So the Rules Committee, which has the authority to change, rewrite or completely redo any rule previously adopted by the RNC, could pass a rule, just theoretically, that says that the delegate votes of non-Republicans [meaning Independents or Democrats who voted for Trump in open primaries] are thrown out. Now that has to go to the full convention for ratification. Trump doesn’t have a majority on the floor, because, for instance, the Texas delegates who are for Trump are really not Trump people — the party has filled those seats with their lackeys. This is precisely how the 1952 nomination was stolen from Robert Taft for Dwight Eisenhower.
If this were to happen, you’ve basically called for Trump supporters to revolt in “days of rage,” which sounds like you’re calling for a 1968-style revolution.
I remember 1968. Why would I advocate for that? Violence at the convention is what destroyed Hubert Humphrey’s chances in the general election. Violence would also hurt Donald Trump in the general election. Rage is defined as anger, not violence. There’s nothing wrong with peaceful protests, and we’re calling for four days of non-violent demonstrations, protests and lobbying delegates face to face.
By which you mean supporters finding out where delegates are staying and going to their hotel rooms, correct?
Yes. Look, the convention happens at night. During the day, everybody’s hanging out at their hotel. So you go find your representatives and you make the case. You’re trying to impress them with numbers. We need a dialogue with each delegate. We have the right to address the delegates. I never said, “Go to their room and beat the shit out of them.” I said, “Find your delegates and tell them why they should vote for Donald Trump.”
“The only thing worse in politics than being wrong is being boring. And Trump is never boring. Politics is show business for ugly people.”
And how would you hold them to this?
We’re going to produce a voluntary loyalty pledge that will say, if you’re a Trump delegate, that you’ll stick with Trump through all the ballots to reflect the will of the voters. We’ll ask them to sign. It’s voluntary, but we’ll see who does it, and who the cockroaches are.
Sending people to delegates’ hotel rooms with “voluntary” loyalty pledges doesn’t strike you as intimidation?
That’s democracy! I promise you, I have people e-mailing me all the time begging me to tell them how they can help Donald Trump. One man’s dirty trick is another man’s civic participation.
And “days of rage”? I mean, come on, that has a connotation you cannot ignore.
I admit it’s somewhat theatrical. But on the other hand, if you don’t say something provocative, you don’t get covered at all. The point of the demonstration is a show of force by numbers. Say there are 100,000 people there — that’s a big deal.
Trump recently hired your former business partner Paul Manafort to manage the convention. From the outside, it looks like Manafort is the adult who was brought in to take over for a bunch of amateurs. Did you recommend Manafort for this gig?
I most definitely did raise his name. I am not the only person who recommended him. But look, you’re talking about a campaign that wanted to reach out to Washington state delegates and wound up sending e-mails to people in D.C. There is very little political experience in their staff. Most of the regional political directors have never been in politics before. And Trump is likely to be nominated despite the fact that he had a bunch of amateurs on his campaign. He’s better than the campaign. The success here is not the success of Trump’s campaign; it’s the success of Trump.
Is Trump going to drive Manafort crazy? I mean, no one seems to say no to Trump.
At the same time, the fact that he is uncoached and unscripted, not reading from polling that tells him what to say to be popular, it’s actually appealing. There’s something [about] watching a guy in a high-wire act without a net. That’s actually what sparked his campaign, the fact that it’s not plastic and prefabricated.
You’ve known Trump for 40 years — who is he, really?
Well, first of all, he’s one of the funniest people I know. There’s nothing pretentious about him. Believe me, he’d prefer a cheeseburger to chateaubriand, that’s just the way he is. He’s a lot of fun to be with when you’re not across from him in a business negotiation. Then he’s the toughest son of a bitch I’ve ever met. He’s completely fearless. He’s also nationalist, which has nothing to do with race, it has to do with national sovereignty. I think his views have been amazingly consistent for a long period of time, particularly on trade and NATO. He’s been talking about our NATO allies ripping us off and not paying their fair share for 30 years. Is he more flexible than he appears? Yes, he’s a businessman.
What is it about Trump that so thoroughly freaks out the establishment?
The [consultant and lobbying class] are petrified of Donald Trump because he is completely uncontrollable — he’s not beholden to anybody. And he also offers the party voters they have never gotten before: the people who feel left out, who’ve decided all government is rigged against them, who’ve been voting forever and nothing ever changes. The problem with the establishment GOP candidates has been that they have no ability to reach beyond the GOP base. Trump is bigger than the Republican Party. Ironically, a billionaire can change the Republican Party from being the Wall Street party back to being the mainstream, more populist-based, non-country-club party. That’s great. Look, the only thing worse in politics than being wrong is being boring. And Trump is never boring. Politics is show business for ugly people.
Donald Trump at an April 16th campaign event in Syracuse, New York. Jabin Botsford/Getty
Suppose Trump gets the nomination. What’s his path to victory?
Well, let’s remember he’s not running against Joan of Arc. I mean, he’s very polarizing, but Hillary’s equally polarizing. So this will be a slugfest. I think he’s got to debunk the idea that she’s an advocate for women. He’s got to debunk the idea that she’s an advocate for children. He’s got to take apart her record as secretary of state. And then I think he’s got to open up the Clinton Foundation and show how they used it to enrich themselves.
What do you make of the Republicans like Lindsey Graham who’ve lined up behind Cruz?
Oh, Lindsey Graham is a whiner. He despises Cruz — he just hates him a little less than he hates Donald. They’re all just using Ted to block Donald.
Still, it’s ironic that Cruz, who had no problem shutting down the government, has now been embraced by the GOP establishment, even if it’s only superficial.
The fact that all these establishment guys have supported him tells me that what they don’t like is Ted personally, not Ted’s views. They’re perfectly fine with his views, by and large. And that’s because Ted’s the ultimate insider. He’s a Princeton-Harvard globalist fraud, and his conservatism goes back about four years. Before that, he was a Bush Republican. Remember, he was one of George W. Bush’s advisers on the Florida recount. His wife was a national-security adviser to Condoleezza Rice. Then she went to Goldman Sachs. Not too many “outsiders” are working at Goldman Sachs. Then, he went out purposefully to reinvent himself as the new Jesse Helms. He comes to D.C. acting like a prick. And I get it — he’s building a base. But he’s a total fraud.
You told me you think the Cruz team’s tactics are “puerile and childish.” That’s funny, especially coming from a guy who suggested a primary opponent of Richard Nixon’s was actually a leftist by giving the guy campaign contributions from “the Young Socialist Alliance.”
That wasn’t my idea! That was the idea of Patrick J. Buchanan. I was just a 19-year-old kid sent out on a stupid mission. The Nixon people were amateurish. They had this whole USC-fraternity mentality that took over after 1968, with the “ratfucking.” This is how Watergate happens. No one who understood politics would have ever broken into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee — for one thing, there wouldn’t be anything in there worth stealing! Anyone who knew anything about campaigns could have told you that.
What was your takeaway from that?
The point isn’t harassment — this is about votes. Ordering 20 pizzas and having them delivered to the Democratic headquarters, that’s just stupid. You’re not changing a single vote. But, say, when John Lindsay is running for president in the Florida Democratic primary in 1972, and somebody hires a plane to fly over Miami Beach with a banner that reads LINDSAY IS TSORIS — which is Yiddish for “trouble” — at a time when Miami Beach is overwhelmingly Jewish … every yid on the beach knows what that means. That’s brilliant!
I assume you hired the plane?