Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of Roger Stone may be the most peculiar document to emerge from the Trump–Russia “collusion” saga. It is an instant classic in the Mueller genre: lots of heavy breathing, then sputtering anti-climax.
After a 20-page narrative about Russian cyber-ops, WikiLeaks’ role as a witting anti-American accomplice, and Trump supporters enthralled by thousands of hacked Democratic emails and visions of the Clinton campaign’s implosion, Stone, a comically inept hanger-on, ends up charged with seven process crimes. No espionage, no conspiracy, no commission of any crime until the investigations started.
This is not to say that obstruction of congressional investigations is trifling. Nor is it to say the accused has a good chance of beating the case. Some of Stone’s alleged lies were mind-bogglingly stupid. Why deny written communications with people you’ve texted a zillion times? Why deny conversations with interlocutors (such as Trump-campaign CEO Steve Bannon) who have no reason to risk a perjury charge to protect you? And don’t even get me started on the witness-tampering count, which, if I were Mueller, I’d have hesitated to include for fear of suggesting an insanity defense. (Do it for Nixon? Pull a “Frank Pentangeli”?)
That said, the case is overcharged. The tampering count carries a 20-year penalty. Adding an obstruction or false-statements count (five years each) would have given Stone (who is 66 years old) prison exposure of up to 25 years. The most central “colluder” in the Mueller firmament to be bagged so far, George Papadopoulos, was sentenced to a grand total of two weeks’ imprisonment. Surely a quarter-century of “potential” incarceration would have sufficed to give prosecutors the “this is serious stuff” headline they crave while allowing for the more representative sentence Stone will eventually receive — who knows, maybe three weeks? But true to form, Mueller instead included six of these five-year counts — so the press can report that Stone faces up to 50 years in the slammer.
This inflated portrait of Stone as a major criminal was further bloated by the scene of his arrest: a well-armed battalion of FBI agents sent to apprehend him as the media, conveniently on hand at 6 a.m., took it all in. But Stone is just a cameo. The big picture is the overarching Trump–Russia investigation. It’s still being inflated, too.