Now that special counsel Robert Mueller has charged Russian intelligence officers with conspiring to hack into Democratic National Committee computers and steal and release email messages, what comes next? The new indictment includes some intriguing language that points to possible charges against former Trump campaign advisor Roger Stone.
The indictment returned Friday charges 12 Russian intelligence officers with 11 counts, including conspiracies to commit computer crimes, aggravated identity theft, and conspiracy to launder money, all in an effort to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.
Count One of the indictment details Russian efforts to hack computers and steal email messages belonging to the DNC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the campaign of Hillary Clinton. It alleges that the conspirators, using the name Guccifer 2.0, communicated with U.S. persons about the release of the stolen documents, including someone identified only as “a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump.” Department of Justice policy counsels against naming uncharged individuals and entities in indictments, instead requiring them to be referred to by description only. Stone said after the indictment that he was probably the person described in the indictment, though he is not charged with a crime.
Why would Mueller include this allegation without charging Stone?
It could be a signal to Stone that charges against him are imminent, and that if he wants to cooperate with investigators, now is the time. Stone, a longtime Trump advisor, potentially has information of value regarding any links between Russian interference and the Trump campaign. If he were to cooperate and provide helpful information, he could receive a favorable sentencing recommendation, face reduced charges, or even avoid charges altogether.
Or it may be that before Stone could be charged, additional evidence is needed, which Mueller seems to have been working to gather. Reports say that Mueller’s
team recently questioned Stone’s social media advisor, Jason Sullivan. In addition former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo said that in his encounters with prosecutors, they were focused on Guccifer, D.C. Leaks and WikiLeaks. “... [T]hey're talking about the timing of some things that happened at the campaign and at the convention. I think they're completely focused on collusion with Russia.”
Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide, said Friday: “As I said after I left the grand jury, it would be nice to say Roger was a subject, but he was clearly a target.”
In June, Stone associate Randy Credico said Mueller wanted to interview him following a Wall Street Journal report regarding an email request he received from Stone during the campaign, asking: “Please ask Assange for any State or HRC e-mail from August 10 to August 30—particularly on August 20, 2011.” This message seems to refer to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, which published many of the stolen emails before the 2016 election. The context of the message raises a number of questions: Why did Stone want the email messages? Did he receive them? If so, what did he do with them?
If sufficient evidence can be gathered to establish that Stone agreed to help Russia in its efforts to influence the election, it would not be a stretch to imagine a superseding indictment that adds Stone as a defendant. Even if Stone was not complicit in the hacking and stealing of the documents, he could be charged with aiding and abetting or accessory after the fact if he knowingly provided advice about when, where, how or what to disseminate the email messages. The hacking and stealing of the emails means nothing without their distribution. This is the stage at which the emails become weaponized.
Stone could also be charged in what’s known as a “Klein conspiracy,” which is a conspiracy to defraud the United States. Mueller charged a Klein conspiracy in the indictment filed in February against the Internet Research Agency (the “troll farm”) and other Russian entities and individuals for using social media to interfere with the administration of the election. A similar conspiracy charge could be filed against Stone and others for their work to interfere with the U.S. government’s administration of the election if Mueller could demonstrate that the members of the conspiracy agreed to disrupt the election through the release of stolen emails, and that one of them would commit an overt act in furtherance of that conspiracy.
And what about Wikileaks and Assange? The indictment alleges that an entity identified as “Organization 1” helped to disseminate the stolen email messages, but does not charge it with any crime. It appears from this context and earlier news reports that Organization 1 likely is Wikileaks. The legal exposure of Assange and Wikileaks may be similar to that of Stone, and yet they, too, remain uncharged. Assange’s location outside the jurisdiction of the United States makes his cooperation unlikely.
It may be that Assange and Wikileaks remain uncharged because Mueller lacks sufficient evidence against them, or, that as a matter of prosecutorial discretion, he thinks it is inappropriate to criminally charge a member of the media, even a website like Wikileaks, for conduct relating to its news gathering activity, in light of the important role that the press plays in our democracy and for concern of the precedent such charges might set. But if the conduct is egregious, Mueller may need to confront the question of when publishing stolen information crosses a legal line.
The new indictment lays the foundation for all of these possibilities. If the evidence does not pan out, then perhaps no additional charges will be filed. But it seems apparent that Mueller will leave no stone unturned.