At age 19 or 20, Roger Stone, who was then an employee of Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), was the youngest person to testify before the Watergate grand jury. Call it a badge of honor. In 1977, Paul Manafort successfully utilized that notoriety while running Stone’s campaign for the presidency of the Young Republicans. Stone then used the prestige of that position, in 1979, to get an assignment as Ronald Reagan’s campaign organizer for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. And that’s when he decided he needed to get to know Donald Trump.
But first he had to make the acquaintance of Roy Cohn. Cohn is most famous for his role as chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. In that role, he led the aggressive and unethical red-baiting Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations until the U.S. Army pushed back and he was forced to resign in August 1954. In private practice Cohn represented prominent New Yorkers like la cosa nostra crime boss Carlo Gambino, Francis Cardinal Spellman and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, but he was frequently at odds with the law. Over the years, he won four separate acquittals on charges varying from conspiracy, securities fraud, bribery, and obstruction of justice before finally being disbarred in 1986 as he was dying of HIV. What Cohn learned from McCarthy was the value of being dramatic and the utility of outrageous claims and accusations. He passed these lessons along to Donald Trump.
According to Trump, he first met Roy Cohn in a members-only Midtown establishment called Le Club. It was 1973, and the government was accusing the Trumps’ real estate business of discriminatory housing practices. He asked Cohn, “The government has just filed suit against our company saying that we discriminated against blacks. What do you think I should do?” Cohn advised him to “Tell them to go to hell and fight the thing in court and let them prove you discriminated.”
The Trumps retained Cohn to represent them and Donald became his student. According to author Sam Roberts, it was from Cohn that Trump learned his now familiar three-part strategy for handling litigation, a strategy which he has now transferred to political combat: 1. Never settle, never surrender. 2. Counter-attack, counter-sue immediately. 3. No matter what happens, no matter how deeply into the muck you get, claim victory and never admit defeat.
Perhaps it was Stone’s reputation for doing political dirty tricks during his time at CREEP working with Chuck ‘Tex’ Colson that gave him the credentials to gain an audience with Cohn. When he arrived at Cohn’s Manhattan townhouse, Stone discovered him in his bathrobe meeting with Anthony ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno of the Genovese crime family. Nine years later, in 1988, Salerno was convicted for allocating contracts and obtaining payoffs in the concrete construction of sixteen Manhattan buildings, including Trump Plaza. After some chit-chat over bagels and cream cheese, Cohn agreed to introduce Stone to Trump. Later on, Stone and Cohn teamed up rather successfully to gather dirt on Walter Mondale’s running mate Geraldine Ferraro. In 1986, Stone listed Cohn along with Richard Nixon and the dethroned Nazi sympathizing Duke of Windsor as his biggest idols.
According to Stone, at their initial meeting, Donald sent him to his father Fred in Coney Island where a deal was struck. “True to his word, I got $200,000. The checks came in $1,000 denominations, the maximum donation you could give. All of these checks were written to ‘Reagan For President.’ It was not illegal—it was bundling. Check trading.”
Stone was not initially impressed with Donald Trump, at least if Christine Seymour can be believed. Seymour was a graduate of St. Lawrence University who landed a job with Roy Cohn as a switchboard operator. With Cohn’s blessing, she had the privilege and responsibility of eavesdropping on and recording calls from clients like Fat Tony Salerno as well as luminaries like Gloria Vanderbilt and First Lady Nancy Reagan. Seymour wrote in her notebooks “Roger did not like Donald Trump or his new house, told me they were losers, but if Roy used them, he would, too.”
So, Roger Stone set out to use Donald Trump. He would go to run Trump’s brief campaign for the Reform Party nomination in 1999, and then to lead the early stages of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2015. We would end the campaign with only a loose affiliation with the candidate, but one in which he served as a conduit between Julian Assange, who was holed up the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and the next president of the United States.
In the first case, he was using Trump to help the Bush family. In the second case, he was using Trump to screw them.
In 1999, Stone’s strategy, which is detailed in the Netflix documentary Get Me Roger Stone, was to convince Pat Buchanan to run for the Reform Party nomination, then enlist Trump to join the race, too, and have him savage Buchanan from the left. Under Stone’s direction, Trump proposed gun control and universal health care while excoriating Buchanan as a Hitler-lover. While Trump didn’t remain in the race for long, the strategy worked well enough that, as Matt Labash later wrote in the Weekly Standard, “A weakened Buchanan went on to help the Reform party implode, and Republicans suffered no real third-party threat…thus helping Stone accomplish his objective.”
By the time that Donald Trump announced to Roger Stone that he was going to run for president, on New Year’s Day 2013, Stone had turned against the Bush family. While he famously played a role in the “Brooks Brothers Riot” that had stopped the 2000 recount in Dade County, Florida, by the end of George W.’s two terms he had seen enough from the Bushes. In 2008, he told Jeffrey Toobin, “Jeb is waiting in the wings? Over my dead body. The Bushes have brought us to ruin twice—first 1992 and now. I’ll see you in New Hampshire to stop it. I’ll wait for him.” Jeb didn’t run for president in the next cycle, but in a Trump candidacy Stone saw a vehicle to derail him in 2016.
Everything would come full circle when Paul Manafort came out of the Ukrainian wilderness to finish running the campaign that Stone had started. By that time, Jeb was already vanquished and it was time to use some dirty tricks against Hillary Clinton. Manafort didn’t get a chance to complete the job, but that’s a story for another day.