Bannon’s contacts with Stone during the 2016 presidential campaign have been one of the featured parts of Stone’s criminal trial, which centers on allegations originally brought by then-special counsel Robert Mueller that the longtime Trump associate gave misleading testimony to Congress about Russia’s election interference in 2016.
That includes Stone denying in a September 2017 appearance before the House Intelligence Committee that he’d discussed with the Trump campaign information he’d received from an intermediary relating to WikiLeaks.
But Stone’s comments to the panel have been undercut by testimony from people like Bannon and a trail of emails and phone records. One message from Aug. 16, 2016, shows Stone telling Bannon on the day he took over as campaign CEO about the prospect that WikiLeaks would drop more damaging documents for the Clinton campaign.
“I have an idea … to save Trump’s ass,” Stone wrote.
Bannon testified Friday that he heard repeatedly from Stone — before he even took over as Trump campaign chief — about his access to WikiLeaks. And Stone kept on talking about the potential of more detrimental materials through the late summer and early fall, at a time when Clinton had the lead in the polls.
“Roger is an agent provocateur,” Bannon explained. “He’s an expert in opposition research. He’s 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 toolbox.”
Stone’s expertise included “dirty tricks,” Bannon said, “the kinds of things campaigns use when they’ve got to make up some ground.”
Bannon’s contacts with Stone included an Oct. 4, 2016, exchange after a much-hyped Assange news conference, which fueled the hashtag #Octobersurprise but turned out to be a bust.
“What was that this morning?” Bannon wrote Stone in an email shared in open court. Stone replied: “Fear. Serious security concerns. He thinks they are going to kill him and the London police are standing done [sic]. However – a load every week going forward.”
Bannon replied: “He didn’t cut deal w/ clintons???”
Inside the Trump campaign, the aborted event lowered the stock of WikiLeaks. “It was a big dud, yes,” Bannon said.
But a few days later, WikiLeaks dumped emails stolen from the Clinton campaign just minutes after The Washington Post published the “Access Hollywood” tape. Bannon described that chain of events as the “Billy Bush weekend” — a reference to the TV personality chatting up Trump in the “Access Hollywood” video, which showed Trump bragging about grabbing women by the genitals.
Stone’s defense seemed to use the cross-examination of Bannon to play down their client’s role, portraying it as a kind of lark. Defense attorney Robert Buschel suggested Stone’s interactions with the campaign about WikiLeaks were few and of little significance.
Buschel also suggested Bannon said previously that a variety of individuals, including Jason Miller, Brad Parscale, David Bossie, Michael Flynn and Donald Trump Jr., had some role at the campaign in dealing with the WikiLeaks releases. But Bannon said he didn’t remember that.
Buschel also emphasized that whatever insight Stone may have had into WikiLeaks, he wasn’t some kind of emissary from Trump’s team to the secret-spilling organization. “Roger Stone was not sent by anyone in the campaign to talk to Julian Assange. Is that true?” the defense attorney asked.
“Not to my knowledge, no,” Bannon said.
While the testimony made evident that Bannon and Stone have cooperated in the past, there was no public discussion of tensions between the two men. In August 2017, Stone publicly called for Bannon’s ouster, one day before he left his West Wing job. And last year, Stone suggested Bannon’s cooperation with Mueller’s probe amounted to “treachery.”
There was no discussion of any interaction between the two while Bannon served in the White House. Prosecutors warned the court that could raise thorny executive privilege issues, prompting Bannon’s defense to agree before the trial not to broach that subject.
Bannon, a former senior Trump White House strategist who has had a rocky ride among the president’s evolving orbits of inside advisers, went out of his way Friday to portray himself as a reluctant witness. Twice during his testimony, he declared that he was a reluctant witness.
“I was subpoenaed, and I’ve been compelled to testify,” he said.
When Michael Marando, an assistant U.S. attorney from Washington, D.C., whose office inherited the Stone case from Mueller, asked Bannon if he would have shown up voluntarily, Bannon declared: “No, I would not.”
As Bannon left the courthouse after only about 35 minutes on the witness stand, he rebuffed reporters’ efforts to have him reprise his testimony. But when asked whether he was genuinely a reluctant witness, he turned and faced the TV cameras.
“I was compelled to testify,” Bannon said emphatically. “I was under subpoena by Mueller. I was under subpoena by the House. … I was forced to go to the grand jury and I’m forced and compelled to come here today.”
But he also acknowledged on the witness stand that he met for “more than hours — many hours” with Mueller’s prosecutors, which he was not legally required to do. And Bannon conceded during cross-examination that he did a pre-interview with prosecutors before his testimony Friday — something he was not forced to do.
The prosecution also suggested at a couple of points that Bannon might be coloring his testimony to minimize Stone’s role.
When Marando first asked Bannon who served as the Trump campaign’s conduit to WikiLeaks, the former White House adviser demurred.
“The campaign’s ‘access point’?” Bannon asked. “I don’t think we had one.”
The prosecutor then showed Bannon a transcript of his closed-door January 2019 grand jury testimony, during which the White House aide described Stone as the campaign’s “access point” to the shadowy online publishing outfit that upended the 2016 presidential race.
Bannon then conceded that he’d used those words, but seemed to qualify them a bit, adding that it was “generally believed” Stone played that role.