The Inside Skinny on How America Got (Roger) Stoned

When the filmmakers started on their Netflix documentary, Roger Stone was running and losing quixotic races and fading from the scene. Then…

Barbara Nitke/Netflix

Over the course of the five-and-a-half years that we followed him for our new Netflix documentary Get Me Roger Stone, Roger Stone went from being a down-and-out, has-been political dirty trickster to the individual most responsible for making Donald Trump the president of the United States.

The transformation was shocking to all of us, Stone included—though he’s likely never to admit as much.

On Election Day 2016, we trailed Stone around Austin, Texas, as his phone rang nonstop with interview requests from the world’s top news outlets. Usually Stone would have happily lapped up every drop of ink and millisecond of airtime offered to him, but that day he was on the brink of realizing a dream he had nurtured since 1987, when he first put the notion into Trump’s head that he should run for president.

Stone was in Texas to talk directly to the millions of people who tune in to alt-right media giant Alex Jones’ eponymous radio show, and frequent his website, Infowars. Jones’ audience is largely distrustful of the government; the kind of people who opt out of voting—precisely the demographic Stone and Jones had targeted to come out of the woodwork to deliver a surprise victory to Trump. For hours at a time, Stone sat beside Jones at the anchor’s desk of Infowars’ state-of-the-art studio, concealed in Jones’ secret headquarters in a nondescript office park, exhorting viewers to go to the polls and upend the country by electing Donald Trump.

By the time Trump declared victory in the early hours of the morning, Stone, 64, had driven himself so far past the point of exhaustion he barely had the energy to celebrate the fact that he had secured his place in history.

It was a far cry from election night 2012, when we spent the evening filming Stone moping about his Manhattan apartment, his face twisted into a grimace. There was a trickle of calls from reporters hunting for the type of pugnacious quote Stone is always good for, but Stone had no inside information to dole out along with his invective. His candidate, Gary Johnson, had gone down in flames and all that was left was for Stone was to watch the returns come in like everyone else in the country.

Stone had a plan to be relevant in 2012, but it had failed. After a lifetime as a conservative zealot—Stone is a former chairman of the National Young Republicans and played key roles in the elections of Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II—he had made news by publicly ditching the GOP and switching his registration to Libertarian. Though Stone attributed his defection to the Republicans’ takeover by the religious right, in truth it had a lot more to do with Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s nominee for president.

Stone had gotten his hooks in Johnson early in the cycle, offering his considerable talents to the candidate for free, and then slipping several members of his inner circle into key campaign roles to make sure he had a firm hold on its operation.

While in retrospect Johnson is easy to dismiss as a third-party kook who never had a chance of getting more than a protest vote, Stone’s interest in Johnson’s candidacy was grounded in a plausible strategy. Johnson had been a popular two-term governor of New Mexico, who, though a Republican, had enjoyed considerable bipartisan support. His strong stance in favor of marijuana legalization, Ironman outdoorsy image, and legitimate record of accomplishment in government positioned him on paper as an attractive alternative to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, particularly among young left-leaning voters out West.

Stone’s stated aim with Johnson was not to win the election, but to get him 5 percent of the vote, which would have qualified the Libertarian Party to receive federal matching funds. That result would have given Stone millions of dollars to play with (and pocket) and would have handed him de facto control of the most important third party in America since the Reform Party imploded in 2000 (thanks largely to Stone’s machinations, as our film reveals).

Speculation swirled that Stone had another, even more sinister scheme running in parallel. Johnson seemed likely to suck more votes away from Obama than Romney, potentially denying Obama wins in key battleground states where the polls were close, à la Ralph Nader. Maybe Stone, ever the master of misdirection, had made a big show of leaving the Republican Party just so he could be better positioned to deliver the White House back to his beloved GOP.

As clever as these plans might have been in theory, in practice they ended up being a colossal failure. Johnson polled a pathetic 0.99 percent, Obama cruised to victory, and Stone—grousing that the night would have ended differently if only Trump had run like he had urged him to do—was forced back to the drawing board.

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It was a familiar place for Stone to wind up. Once the ultimate Republican Party insider, he had been cast out of the mainstream of the party in 1996 after he and his wife were exposed by the National Enquirer as swingers. Though Stone had continued to leave his mark on national politics—most notoriously for his role in shutting down the Florida recount in 2000 and securing George W. Bush the presidency—he had been compelled to operate in the shadows, a place where Stone is uncannily effective, yet one at odds with his insatiable appetite for attention.

When we first met Stone, he was coming off another big loss: the 2010 race for governor of New York. Stone’s candidate was a brash, vulgar billionaire real-estate developer who railed against political correctness and career politicians, and even though he had never run for office before, knocked the Republican establishment on its ass in the primary by tapping into the anger of disaffected white voters. Sound familiar? Nope, not that guy. This one was named Carl Paladino.

But compared to Donald Trump—a virtuoso of the vapid power of television and social media—Paladino had the press savviness of a caveman suddenly unfrozen during a 21st-century election cycle. He flailed around throwing haymakers throughout the general election, before being knocked out cold by his Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo.

One of the many oddities of that gubernatorial contest was that Stone had more than one horse in the race. In addition to Paladino, he was also masterminding the campaign of Kristin Davis, a former madam best known for claiming to have supplied prostitutes to New York’s disgraced former governor Eliot Spitzer—Stone’s self-professed nemesis.

Stone had concocted Davis’ campaign with several aims: to humiliate Spitzer by keeping his scandal in the tabloids; to use Davis’ pro-pot, pro-marriage equality platform to siphon votes away from Cuomo and help Paladino; and to try to get official status for a new party Stone could in turn leverage for money and power. But as in the case of Gary Johnson this scheme was hobbled by the poor caliber of Stone’s candidate and it failed miserably.

This string of strikeouts with quirky candidates had reduced Stone to a laughingstock in the opinion of many members of the political establishment that we interviewed, but what the insiders misunderstood is that Stone’s approach to dirty tricks is a deliberate percentage game.

Stone always has at least five dastardly plots in the works. Many of them go nowhere, but the few that come to fruition yield Stone a batting average worthy of the Supervillain Hall of Fame.

Between the 2012 and 2016 cycles, Stone’s conniving started to connect. In 2013, he added the title of “alternative historian” to his résumé, publishing a book pinning the JFK assassination on Lyndon Johnson. Using his ample gifts as a self-promoter, Stone hustled the book onto the New York Times bestseller list—albeit for one week in an obscure category—and then maximized his thin credential as a “best-selling” author to spin out four more books in four years.

The Kennedy book opened up another door for Stone. It was when we were filming at Dealey Plaza in Dallas on the 50th anniversary of the assassination that Stone, aptly enough, first met Alex Jones, the most influential conspiracy theorist in America. As Stone put it to us, their connection was “kismet.” In Stone, Jones found a charismatic former adviser to presidents who was more than willing to embrace him and validate his show. In Jones, Stone found a huge audience to buy his books and later to convert into the fanatical nationwide army Trump needed to conquer the White House. Shortly after their initial encounter on that fateful day in Dallas, Stone became a fixture on Jones’ show and, as a result, one of the leading media figures of what later would be dubbed the alt-right.

All the while, Stone continued to dabble with candidates. In 2013, Stone again ran Kristin Davis for office, this time for New York City comptroller. While initially the campaign was little more than a publicity stunt combined with a ploy to game the city’s matching fund system of campaign finance, Stone promptly struck gold when none other than Eliot Spitzer entered the race in an attempt to resurrect his political career.

The spectacle of the “Luv Guv” facing off against his very own “Manhattan Madam” was manna from heaven for late night comedy show hosts and the race instantly became a national punchline. We had never seen Stone happier. He was salivating to unleash the full arsenal of his dirty tricks on Spitzer, the person he most detested in the world.

Then disaster struck. Davis was arrested for illegally dealing prescription drugs and in an instant her campaign was over. Stone was devastated. He had lost out on the perfect opportunity to torment Spitzer, but, more importantly, Davis’ ignominious collapse appeared to be yet another nail in the coffin of Stone’s moribund career as a political consultant.

After this string of calamitous campaigns, it felt like Stone—a man who lives by a series of maxims called Stone’s Rules that can largely be boiled down to the credo that one should do whatever it takes to win—had become a loser.

This is very well how our film could have ended, and for a time it was how we thought it would. There was a karmic justice to Stone’s apparent fate that wrapped up his story into a neat arc. Stone had spent his career hollowing out our politics, but in the end it was he who had wound up hollow.

In another era, the image we captured of Stone on the day of Davis’ arrest may very well have been the final shot of our movie; Stone slumped in his office chair, half in shadow, staring despondent and bewildered into the void.

But this was not any other time in American history. This, as Roger has named it, is the Age of Stone—when America has become the country Stone has spent his career shaping it into.

In the Age of Stone, Donald Trump descends the gaudy escalator of his Tower and, rather than being destroyed by the flurry of inflammatory remarks he unleashes at the announcement of his candidacy, instead shoots to the top of the polls and becomes as big a winner as he always told us he was.

In the Age of Stone, Roger’s enemies have been vanquished, he has been vindicated, and his most outlandish dream has become everyone’s reality.

For much of the time we were making Get Me Roger Stone, people often asked us, “Who’s Roger Stone?” Now that Stone is a hero to millions and despised by many millions more, a question we get far more frequently is, “How did you foresee Stone would be so important?”

This shift reflects the remarkable journey we took with Stone over the course of the five-and-a-half years we spent with him. When we began, Stone was desperate for a last gasp of attention. Now, people all across the country want to know what Stone will be up to next.

Daniel DiMauro, Dylan Bank, and Morgan Pehme are the co-writers and directors of Get Me Roger Stone, which premieres May 12 on Netflix.