Trump’s man crosses enemy lines to join Mike Murphy and Radio Free GOP.
By Matt Labash
By the time the last day of the Republican National Convention rolls around, my subject, intermittent companion, and fashion lodestar Roger Stone, has become the media equivalent of the village teeter-totter—every reporter is taking a ride. As someone who is both petty and jealous (a prerequisite in our seedy little trade), I resent this.
But things have changed since Stone has become Trump World’s most lovable/quotable mascot. This isn’t like the old days, when I might visit Stone in South Florida as he was hatching his latest dirty trick, or after he’d been embroiled in minor scandal. His man, Donald J. Trump, who Stone’s been advising politically since the 1980s, is now in the final heat to become Leader of the Free World. And Stone is glowing orange in the reflected glory. “Labash, I’m a superstar!” he explains with Trumpian reserve.
Stone’s never lacked expertise in generating headlines. But in days of yore, if his name was mentioned in so much as a subordinate clause in a local pennysaver, I could count on three press releases being sent from him about it. Now, however, his coverage has become so ubiquitous that he doesn’t even seem to be retweeting, let alone reading, his clips. If I accompany him to say, a Barnes & Noble book-signing, where he autographs copies of his alternative histories for adulatory aluminum-foil-hat types (such as his best-selling treatise on how LBJ iced JFK), by the time I’m back in my room transcribing tape, Google-alerts with Stone’s name have littered my inbox.
In order to alleviate the tedium of watching Stone rotate the crops, sound-bite-wise, to everyone from the New York Times to Playboy to Charlie Rose, I opt to take another course. I invite Mike Murphy, another former profile subject who worked the opposite side of the political street when he headed up Jeb Bush’s star-crossed super PAC, Right to Rise, to join Stone and me for copious amounts of alcohol and badinage. The idea being to slip two wolverines into a gunny sack—who also happen to be two of the smartest and wittiest men in politics—then watch the magic happen. Despite their natural Trumpian/Jebian rivalry (Stone has written a book titled Jeb! And the Bush Crime Family: The Inside Story of an American Dynasty), Stone is game. But Murphy balks, worrying that his Jeb-World cohorts will be sore if he desecrates the Jeb! flag with his participation.
But a few days later, Murphy has second thoughts and asks me if Stone might want to come on his new podcast, saying I can tag along. It’s not as ideal as my idea—Murphy will be running the symposium instead of me, thus guaranteeing it’s more civilized. But I readily accept, and make it happen, as it’s still preferable to listening to Joni Ernst speeches, or watching Stone explain to the Council Bluffs Chancre why Trump is going to make America great again.
I arrive around lunchtime without Stone. His scheduler has him spending the morning working Media Row like a milking machine. But I want to catch up with Murphy, anyway. The last time I saw him, in March, the usually happy warrior was a little down-in-the-mouth. Jeb had just dropped out of the race, after Murphy and co. had raised $118 million to win all of four delegates. And surly #neverTrump types, along with reporters, had pinned a kick-me sign on Murphy’s back, blaming him for going after metrosexual-ankle-boot-wearing types like Marco Rubio instead of taking out the alpha-male Orangeman, who’d eventually walk off with the race. They grew even more abusive when it was reported that Murphy collected $14 million for the political equivalent of piloting the Hindenburg. (Murphy insisted this was “absolute bullshit,” saying he was capped at mid-six figures, a relatively paltry sum in his train-heist business, considering the pot that had been collected.)
Murphy, who has a taste for the Old Ways, heartily greets me in the back of the Harbor Inn, Cleveland’s oldest bar (established 1895), from which he’s been recording podcasts all week. Noticing all the boarded-up buildings and homeless types carrying plastic shopping bags of their possessions in the near vicinity, I ask Murphy what neighborhood we’re in, Detroit? “It does remind me of home,” says the sentimental Motor City native. The Harbor Inn is a charmingly down-at-the-heels dark-wood joint with Elvis pinball machines and Michael Collins Irish Whiskey bar mirrors, the kind of endangered leftover that Joseph Mitchell might duck into to escape the midday sun and punish his liver in 80-proof solitude.
Now that Murphy is once again retired from politics, he is back on the punditry chow line. Around his neck hangs an NBC lammie, since he makes regular appearances on their networks, and also a Washington Post one. He does no work for the Washington Post, mind you. They just have a much better hospitality lounge at this convention (being owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos), and Murphy finds it a more inviting place to crash between TV hits.
When I ask if he’s back on the speaking circuit as well, he says, “Are you kidding? Ka-ching! I’ll open a f—cking car dealership!” Recently, he adds, he even appeared at Politicon, the political equivalent of Comic-Con. “I walked in there and it was like a variety show,” he says, affecting the arch baritone of an arena announcer ticking off the lineup: “‘Ann Coulter!, Van Jones!, Paul Begala!, Mike Murphy!, The Amazing Floyd!, Sarah Palin!, Wacko McGee!’…I looked around the green room, and there’s Robert Davi trying to talk Ann Coulter into something, and Cliff from Cheers, like ‘where’s my f-cking check?'” Not for nothing does Murphy call politics the “lowest rung of show business.”
While sitting on a Hillary panel, with an audience stacked with about two-thirds Bernie Sanders supporters and one-third Trumpkins, Murphy says, “I wanted to do an ice-breaking joke and get laughed off the stage because they hated me so much. To ask, ‘How many Trump people here? How many Bernie people here?’ Do me a favor – don’t breed.’ That’s what was going through my mind. I was very grumpy. But I didn’t say it, because I hadn’t gotten paid yet.”
During our last visit, Murphy made clear how much he detests Trump (whom he calls “a machine to offend me every day”), saying “I’d rather cut my arm off than vote for that jerk,” while adding that electing someone who is so fundamentally ignorant about what presidential powers even entail is “like putting a chimp in the driver’s seat of a tractor. He’s not going to plow the field. He’s going to drive the tractor into the lake.”
While Murphy has no shortage of opportunities to voice his opinions on television or from the dais, it’s his new podcast, Radio Free GOP, that especially seems to animate him. Featuring all manner of bold-print players discussing inside dope in a more candid setting—everyone from Mitt Romney (who Murphy helped elect governor) to the New York Times‘s Jonathan Martin—Radio Free GOP is low-budget. Murphy fronts the costs himself for now, schleps his own microphones around, and live-reads ads on the air. But he already has t-shirts with the podcast’s logo—a red graffitied elephant on its back in distress, giving his the air of resistance radio. Murphy gifts me a t-shirt in “surrender white,” while assuring, “We did not use the Trump slave-labor factories. We went with American-made. Which means they’re massively overpriced, but it’s quality merchandise.”
The show gives Murphy the freedom of a kid finger-painting the walls during art class. He started it “because my wife got tired of me yelling at the TV.” When I ask him what he can say here that he can’t say on Meet the Press or Morning Joe, Murphy thinks about it for a minute. “‘Orange-haired c—ksucker plague,'” he blurts, “but I don’t work too blue on the podcast.”
We get to talking about our time at the convention and I mention that I had dinner one night with Alex Jones, a Stone co-conspirator and a professional conspiracy theorist by trade. Murphy interrupts. “You really work the undercard, man. Every kind of weirdo….” I remind Murphy that we’re currently living in Trump’s America—the undercard is now the overcard. Trump himself, no slouch in the conspiracy-theory department (see: birtherism), has even appeared on Alex Jones’s show at Stone’s urging. “That’s true,” he allows. “The undercard rules the world for now.”
While Murphy and Stone aren’t close, they’ve known each other casually for years and have the mutual respect for each other of fellow pirates, albeit ones who aren’t afraid to throw a sharp elbow here or there. As I was reporting my Murphy profile some months back and suggested to Stone that he and Murphy were Establishment vs. Anti-establishment evil twins, Stone said, “That’s almost insulting, I’m far more effective than he is. Though he makes more money than I do. The fees Murphy takes out of this stuff? The guy should be wearing a mask.” Still, Stone said, he liked Murphy, thinks he’s “very funny, he has no problem puncturing the conventional wisdom. He has that Irish twinkle in his eye.” Even if, Stone added, Murphy, who is younger than he is, is a “dinosaur” who doesn’t understand how the new out-of-the-main-vein media action (like Jones’s Infowars) can dominate, and that Jeb couldn’t break through the din. “The only thing worse in politics than being wrong is being boring, as Dick Nixon would say. And Murphy allowed Jeb to be exceedingly boring.”
While it’s unclear how Jeb could be exciting under anyone’s tutelage, Murphy, for his part, responded with equanimity when I relayed that Stone had said Murphy, for all his talents, was basically stuck in 1986: “Yeah, yeah, I like Roger. He never made it to the big-time himself in 1986, so he wouldn’t know. But I think Stone is a good consultant, he’s not dumb at all. He’s kind of got this ‘persona’ now. So I’ve kind of frozen him in my memories as a smart guy, because I like those—the old pro—not the current Zoot-suited character. It’s kind of like Fat Elvis, you know? I’m gonna remember the good stuff.”
As Murphy and I take a back-table at the Harbor Inn, wrecking a plate of mini-tacos, the documentary crew that has been following Stone for years materializes. (I’m asked not to reveal their affiliation, but suffice to say, they’re filming for a major entertainment distributor, thus guaranteeing that Stone’s Google-alerts will again multiply.) They ask us to sign filming releases, prompting Murphy to warn me, “If this thing goes sideways, your job is to start singing copyrighted Beatles songs that cannot be cleared.” The director, Morgan Pehme, tells us at the Stone will soon arrive. He got tied up because Stone was on the convention floor while Trump was doing a sound check for that night’s big closer speech, “and Stone was trying to be helpful and go up to Trump on the floor and speak with him.”
“In other words,” says Murphy, “he wants Trump to see him there.” No, says Pehme, “he wants our documentary to see him there.” “But he couldn’t get up on the podium, right?” Murphy snorts. “He’s down on the floor with the College Republicans.” Pehme adds that Stone did have breakfast with Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, that morning. (Many think Manafort is working for Trump as a result of Stone’s influence—the two being former partners.) Manafort wanted nothing to do with being on-camera, and Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, walked up to Stone for a discussion, “but there was a wall of Secret Service, so I didn’t get a shot,” says Pehme.
Murphy says he, too, ran into Stone the other day. Trying to clear a security checkpoint, Murphy suddenly heard a couple of steak-heads shouting “Roger Stone security!” “I started howling with laughter. Roger Stone security? [Stone hires security for public appearances, since he’s had many death threats] I’m like, ‘Who the fuck cares?'” Murphy then goes into mock-security talk between bodyguards: “Spatula calling Frying Pan.” Murphy says he told Stone, who was wearing his Harry F. Bird off-white southern pol rig, “‘Hey Roger, I like the ice cream suit.’ And then the real Secret Service guys kind of said [to Stone’s security] ‘Hey Miami Wannabe, [move over] with Soldier of Fortune another foot, or I’ll break your neck.’ It was a funny little moment. It made their day they got to push through a crowd of five hippies.” Still, Murphy says, “I’m very soft on Stone….There’s a lot of self-creation in all this.”
Murphy, who legitimately respects Stone’s intelligence, does wonder if we’ll all eventually find out that Stone “secretly listens to NPR all day, reads French novels, and worries about the Polis….See, my advice to Stone is I would do less of his dirty trickster horseshit because the truth is, under all that bullshit, Stone is a very good grown-up consultant. That’s what I know him from. He’s like a Yankee’s ballplayer who decided ten years ago to get into ladies’ professional wrestling. There’s box-office, there. But Stone, don’t be afraid to be a highly competent political consultant.”
Stone himself soon arrives, with his porkpie-hatted henchman Andrew Miller, aka “A-Mill,” in tow. I haven’t seen A-Mill in nearly a decade. The last time I did, Stone was telling me how his Boy Friday, who does all manner of dirty-tricks legwork for Stone, was a “killer.” Late one night, when they were both walking back to their car in a strip-club parking lot, two large gentlemen tried to mug them. A-Mill reached into his boot, pulled a straight-razor, and slashed one of them across the face, causing both assailants to run. A-Mill hugs me, thanking me for writing about him long ago. “You’re the first guy ever to put my name to paper that wasn’t a police officer,” he says, gratefully.
Stone and Murphy also warmly greet each other, and start talking about Stone’s now deposed Trump-campaign nemesis, “Louie Corendowski.” Stone means Corey Lewandowski, a man he has called “a pimple on the ass of history.” But one of Stone’s Rules is that there is no more effective way to insult someone than by mispronouncing their name. Rumor has it that that later today at a media event, Stone will don a Bill Clinton shirt with “Rape” scrawled underneath his smiling mug (Stone has literally written the book on the subject, The Clinton’s War on Women). I ask him what this caper will entail. It doesn’t have a lot of plot points. “Put on a rape shirt,” he says, “and sell them like hotcakes. What the hell? Hopefully agitate some hippies. Maybe we can punch out some anarchists.”
The three of us sit down at Murphy’s podcast table, and Stone asks for an unsweetened iced tea. “Because only a redneck would drink sweetened iced tea,” he adds. Surveying Murphy’s low-budget affair, Stone breaks his balls, suggesting that “you probably should take the lens cap off, it usually looks better that way.” Murphy calls for quiet from “film crews and henchmen,” and before hitting record, Stone and Murphy compare notes on Murphy’s tie, which Murphy seems proud of, explaining that “I only wear them four times a year.”
“I wear them to bed,” says Stone, the Mr. Blackwell of the political world.
Murphy and Stone are off to the races in what is largely a cordial exchange, to drill down on campaign particulars. They are two old pros, one of whom wants Trump to be King of the World, the other praying Trump loses and is buried “in a pile of orange rubble.” Being a well-mannered host, Murphy is solicitous of Stone, a guest in his barroom. They talk about Ted Cruz and his apostate turn at the convention in which he failed to endorse Trump and was nearly booed off the stage for his troubles.
“I mean, the man’s a psycho,” says Stone. “He thinks he’s Ronald Reagan, but look in the mirror, dude. You’re Dick Nixon….He’s sweaty, he’s odious. As I told somebody earlier, ‘Why do people instantaneously dislike Ted Cruz? They’re saving time.'” Murphy, a #neverTrumpster who still thinks Cruz picked the wrong spot to register his objections, piles on. He recalls an old Hollywood joke about Buddy Rich, the wickedly talented but famously difficult drummer. “Five thousand people showed up at his funeral when he finally died,” says Murphy. “Somebody said, ‘Really, for Buddy Rich?’…’Yeah, they wanted to make sure he was dead.'”
“We are elephants,” Stone threatens. “We have a long memory. This guy will never be president. And right now, I’m actively seeking a challenger for him in the Texas Republican [senatorial] primary….I had dinner with Alex Jones last night, who has vowed it, and he is not an insignificant force in Texas. The guy has got millions of viewers, and they are more followers than they are viewers. It almost guarantees that Tricky Ted gets a primary. And then as soon as his wife figures out he’s not gonna be president, she’s gonna leave him. So I don’t think that the road ahead is too good for Tricky Ted.” Murphy suggests Stone himself should run. “It would be kind of fun.,” Murphy says mischievously. Stone smiles, saying, “Yeah, well you know what? Who would vote for me? Let’s be realistic. I’ve got more dirt than he does.”
Murphy second-guesses the Trump campaign’s response on doubling down after portions of Melania’s speech were found to be cribbed. “Paul could have just fired his least-favorite intern the next morning, and they could have ended it by lunch.” Stone defends his old pal, saying Manafort can’t be blamed for it, even if “Louie Corendowski is out leaking that ‘Melania is furious, and she wants Manafort fired, and she wants to bring Corey back.” In fact, Stone adds, last night coming out of dinner, “I got a breathless call from political reporter” who told him that Eric Trump is telling people Manafort will be fired, and [one of Corey’s preferences] will replace him. “Could this be true?” the reporter asked. “And I was, ‘Boy, I sure don’t think so, but let me make a call.” Stone informed Manafort, and “all I got was uproarious laughter. He dropped the phone, he was laughing so hard. It’s all Corey. This guy is just a turd.”
Murphy asks Stone how he gives advice to Trump, who doesn’t seem to be particularly fond of taking any. Trump’s not the kind of guy who says “tell me what to do,” stipulates Murphy. “That’s the exact wrong approach,” Stone agrees. “First of all, I’m an inveterate memo writer. The difference between Dick Morris and me is that mine actually get read. But I understand how to write for his absorption. You write short, pithy stuff in staccato style, and then he’ll consider your ideas. And then every once in a while, a phrase or idea might pop up that he thought about and liked. But no one really ever puts words in his mouth. If you did, then he would stop being Donald Trump.” (When Stone once told me that you can’t hand Trump a 40-page economic plan because it’s “too boring,” I asked him if the president of the United States shouldn’t be willing to be bored, considering he needs to hunker down on necessary details. “That’s what you appoint people to do,” Stone said, dismissively. “Or as Lee Atwater used to say, ‘Read this, and tell me what it says.'”)
“You don’t sell him words,” continues Stone. “You sell him concepts.…If he is going to utilize it, it’s still in his own words. It’s never in your words. This is kind of the reason why he’s a good candidate, in the sense that he’s interesting. He’s like the man working without a net. You never know what he might say. Let’s tune in and see what Trump’s going to say tonight.” Murphy, much as he loathes Trump, agrees. “He knows how to hold attention,” Murphy seconds, “because everything he does is a high wire act, for good or bad. And that’s going to be the great physics test of this campaign: Will Karl Wallenda finally fall off the high wire?”
Murphy asks Stone which of Trump’s weaknesses he thinks could spin out of control. “I’m not stupid enough to answer that question,” says Stone. “Next.”
“You’ve gotta give me credit for trying,” Murphy says.
“So we’ve gotta ask this again, because we’re old friends and I haven’t seen you in a while,” says Murphy, plowing forward. “You don’t have the hunger to go [back] inside [the Trump campaign]? Because you’ve got this persona now as the dirty tricks king.” Stone interjects: “One man’s dirty tricks is another’s civic participation.” Yes, Murphy says, “but I’ve known you a long time. Your toolbox is bigger than that. So the idea of being the chief strategist of the thing doesn’t appeal a little bit?” Stone says that “in all honesty, I frankly think I can be more effective outside the tent pissing on Hillary Clinton than inside the tent. So I’d rather have independence, because at my age, I’m too old to clear my statements, or my media appearances.”
Besides adds Stone, the Trump campaign already has a full kitchen, with longtime, capable cronies of his like pollster Tony Fabrizio and Manafort. Of Manafort, who has worked for some exceedingly sketchy foreign interests in the past, Stone jokes (sort of) that Manafort has great strategic sense as “he’s elected a lot of strongmen, most of them outside of the country.” Yes, Murphy agrees, “occasionally with the slogan: ‘Like you have a choice, amigo.'” “Right,” Stone echoes, “or ‘vote for us or we’ll kill you.’ Just kidding.”
The two old soldiers compare battle scars. Stone tells Murphy that as he knows, it can be a grueling life. “Oh, it’s horrible,” amens Murphy. “I’m out of it now. I managed to have my last crash-and-burn, and now I’m pontificating on podcasts.” Well, “hopefully it was profitable at least,” says Stone. “Not nearly enough,” grouses Murphy. “I felt the fiduciary responsibility, so no, the money went on the screen.” Stone reminds Murphy that there is a recent Trump book, titled Never Enough. “I should have read that book first,” says Murphy. “I would have paid myself a little more.”
Murphy and Stone even grow a little misty. “I’ve been the hottest guy in my field,” says Murphy (who has helped win elections for everyone from Governor Jeb Bush to Arnold Schwarzenegger), “and the coldest. And I’ve been up and down a couple of times. I know the arc. You’re going through that now. What’s it been like?” Stone reflects modestly: “We’re now in the Age of Stone. I feel like it’s come all the way back around when you and I…were plotting a takedown of the establishment. Then we became the establishment.”
“I remember,” says Murphy.
“Then we became anti-establishment,” Stone continues, “I even left the party over revulsion of Mitt Romney—no offense.” As Stone and Murphy wind things up, Stone plugs his latest book, Jeb and the Bush Crime Family. “I’m happy to send you an autographed copy,” Stone generously offers. “Oh, I already have plenty of stuff for my fireplace,” Murphy demurs. “Yeah, well the problem is your candidate dropped out 11 days after I published it, so you took a big chunk out of my hide, anyway,” Stone complains. “You’ll survive,” reassures Murphy. Stone goes on to plug his anti-Clinton screed, promising it doesn’t just thump Hillary and Bill, but also “their foul-mouthed, greedy, nasty little daughter, Chelsea.”
“You know how to do a big finish, Roger,” says Murphy, calling time. “Thank you very much for doing Radio Free GOP.”
As they sit there in afterglow, I can finally speak. Trying to coax another flame out of the cooling embers, I ask Stone if he has any questions he’d like to ask Murphy. He doesn’t rise to the bait. They talk shop for a while, and mutual acquaintances. When I ask if they ever thought about launching a fashion-blog together, Murphy says, “Other than occasional spurts of brilliance, I am not at all qualified to opine on fashion.” Stone agrees: “I am fashion. He is anti-fashion. But it works well for you, though.”
“We could have a good Vegas act,” proposes Murphy.
Finally unable to stomach all the chummy civility, I ask Stone—who thinks Murphy and co. didn’t take Trump out fast enough after getting too distracted clearing the rest of the field—what he would have done differently if he’d had to run Jeb Bush.
“Kill myself,” Stone says.
“That’s what I would have done with Trump,” says Murphy. “See, perfect symmetry!”
The time has come to bid adieu, Stone has more Google hits to roll up. Murphy and I are asked to stay behind by the film crew for a few minutes. They want to talk to us about (what else) Roger Stone. By later that afternoon, Stone will have again commandeered national headlines. First, by showing up at a street rally with Alex Jones, wearing a Clinton rape shirt, while decrying the greedy, morally bankrupt Clintons as people “who would steal a hot stove.” Later, he’ll pose for a photo—which will be pasted all over Twitter—in which Stone has removed his shirt, displaying his back tattoo of Richard Nixon’s face. And later still, he and his BFF Jones will nearly get into a fistfight, caught on video, with the belligerent, near-crazed host of The Young Turks broadcast, who Stone says called them over in the middle of taping, then started berating them. “It was a set-up. The blowhard kept calling me a liar, saying everything I’d written was a lie,” Stone tells me afterwards. Stone is used to this. He says that people always suspect the worst of him, and he once said of himself, “If it rains, it was Stone.” But what’d he lie about, Stone wants to know. “Eliot Spitzer? Did I lie that he sleeps with hookers, or that he chokes them? Read the papers.”
After getting my Stone debrief, just for kicks, I call Murphy to tell him how the rest of the day shaped up for his podcast mate. As I do so, Murphy starts laughing, loudly, half in admiration, half in horror. “What can you say?” Murphy sighs. “Just another day in the life of Roger Stone.”