Steve Bannon testifies that Trump campaign saw Roger Stone as its 'access point' to WikiLeaks
By KRISTINE PHILLIPS | USA Today | Published: November 9, 2019
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — President Donald Trump's campaign saw Roger Stone as an informal channel to WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential race, when the anti-secrecy group published troves of damaging emails about rival Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, this according to Steve Bannon.
Bannon, the Trump campaign's chief executive at the time, testified Friday that he perceived Stone to be the "access point" to WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. He said that was based on Stone's claims that he had connections to Assange and that he had advance knowledge that WikiLeaks possessed stolen emails that would hurt Clinton and help Trump.
"Did he ever brag to you about his relationship with Assange?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Marando asked Bannon.
"I wouldn't call it bragging. Maybe boasting," Bannon, former executive chairman of the conservative website Breitbart News, said.
Stone's alleged back-channel efforts with WikiLeaks are at the center of his criminal trial, which began earlier this week. The longtime GOP operative and Trump ally is accused of lying to the House Intelligence Committee in 2017 about his efforts to learn of WikiLeaks' plans to release DNC emails.
Stone is also accused of lying to the committee about his communications with the Trump campaign about WikiLeaks, and trying to force a witness to lie. Defense attorneys say Stone did not intentionally mislead the committee.
The committee, at the time, was investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible ties to the Trump campaign. Special counsel Robert Mueller's separate Russia investigation found that Russian intelligence stole damaging emails from the DNC and Clinton's campaign chairman, and passed them to WikiLeaks.
Stone is among the most prominent Trump allies to be indicted as a result of Mueller's investigation. He faces seven charges: one count of obstruction of an official proceeding, five counts of false statements and one count of witness tampering.
The trial comes amid a fast-moving impeachment inquiry that has yielded damning testimony about the Trump administration's efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, the president's potential 2020 Democratic rival.
Bannon, who reiterated that he was not testifying willingly, is one of four witnesses who testified on behalf of the government during the first week of Stone's trial.
At the center of the charges against Stone is his interaction with a man whom he claimed was his link to Assange.
Prosecutors allege that Stone falsely told Congress that Randy Credico, a comedian and radio host who had interviewed Assange on his show, was his source of information about WikiLeaks beginning in June 2016 or earlier. Prosecutors also allege that Stone tried to force Credico to either lie to Congress or not testify by asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
But Credico, who was the government's key witness, testified that he never had back-channel communications with WikiLeaks. He also said he did not have interactions with Assange until August 2016, when the WikiLeaks founder was a guest on his radio show. Even during that interview, Credico said, he never gained advance knowledge about WikiLeaks' plans to release DNC emails.
"I never asked him about his business," Credico testified. "Julian Assange is not going to tell me about future releases ... I wasn't ever going to ask him that."
Credico and Stone met in 2002. Based on Credico's testimony, the relationship seemed tumultuous – one that, at least in recent years, was punctuated with squabbles and hostile, expletive-laden emails and text messages – many of which were displayed to jurors.
"You are a rat. A stoolie," says an April 2018 email from Stone in which he threatened to take Credico's dog from him. The same day, he allegedly wrote, "I am so ready. Let's get it on. Prepare to die [expletive]."
Defense attorneys did not dispute that Credico was never an intermediary to WikiLeaks, though they sought to discredit Credico.
"You are not an intermediary ... even though you led Stone to believe that you were one," defense attorney Robert Buschel said.
"I disagree," Credico responded.
Credico also acknowledged having lied to Stone.
"There were exaggerations. There were lies. There were ripoffs, yes," he said.
At times, Credico said, he blustered about his connections to Assange in order to one-up Stone. Other times, he did so to get Stone off his back because he was "pounding" him with questions about WikiLeaks, Credico said.
The cross-examination immediately became hostile, with a visibly frustrated Credico interjecting, offering meandering answers, and arguing with the defense attorney. Toward the end of his testimony, Credico maintained that Stone forced him into the situation he is in now.
"I didn't ask for this. I'm the bystander. He's driving the car. I got hit on the side of the road," Credico said.
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