The Man Behind Donald Trump’s Unlikely Rise Wrote Its Playbook for Al Sharpton
Advise a larger-than-life New Yorker? Check. Disrupt the party establishment? Check. Hijack the primary debates? Check.
A funny thing about the Nixon-tattooed showy master of the shadowy arts who’s helped make Donald J. Trump the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination: He worked out his playbook for using a larger-than-life New Yorker to blow up a party’s establishment by hijacking debates with incendiary comments and earned media coverage a dozen years ago, on behalf of a Democrat.
That was when Roger Stone, who claims credit for, among other things, exposing Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s hooker habit and the Brooks Brothers riot he says made George W. Bush president, crossed party lines to work for—deep breath, Trumpsters—the Rev. Al Sharpton.
The Sharpton-Stone alliance is a piece of recent history that none of the three men want to talk about now, but one that the great Wayne Barrett extensively documented for The Village Voice in 2004, in the midst of Sharpton’s attention-grabbing and ill-fated bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Barrett’s bottom line:
Stone played a pivotal role in putting together Sharpton’s pending application for federal matching funds, getting dollars in critical states from family members and political allies at odds with everything Sharpton represents. He’s also helped stack the campaign with a half-dozen incongruous top aides who’ve worked for him in prior campaigns. He’s even boasted about engineering six-figure loans to Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN) and allowing Sharpton to use his credit card to cover thousands in NAN costs—neither of which he could legally do for the campaign.
Stone and Sharpton had a mutual interest, one of the men who arranged their initial meeting told Barrett: “They both hate the Democratic party.”
Neither of the two—with Sharpton now having remade himself as a frequent visitor to the Obama White House and Stone a top outside adviser to Trump, albeit one who’s nominally separate from the campaign—wanted the story of their unlikely alliance revealed then, or brought back to light now. Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to questions about this story and denied the reporter’s request for press credentials to an event Sunday on Staten Island.
Both Stone and Sharpton—who Barrett called “outlandish personalities too large to be bound by the constraints that govern the rest of us,” a description that also applies to The Donald—have long histories with Trump.
Stone has been the rare adviser who’s kept Trump’s ear over the years (and, Barrett reported, worked behind the scenes to help Donald’s sister, judge Maryanne Trump Barry, win her seat on the federal bench), while Sharpton has done business with Trump in what he’s called an unlikely friendship that goes back to the days when the Trump casinos in Atlantic City were actually owned by Trump and he contributed to Sharpton’s old operation, when then-heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, managed by Sharpton’s friend Don King, was fighting at The Donald’s venues there. The Sharpton-Trump link, through King and Tyson, is no secret, and takes up some space in Jack Newfield’s 1995 book Only in America: The Life and Crimes of Don King. (Trump, again according to Barrett, was Newfield’s main source.)
“I had nothing to do with Trump or boxing in Atlantic City,” Sharpton told me last Thursday in the ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, where the Rev. held his 25th annual National Action Network (NAN) convention. The group replaced Sharpton’s National Youth Movement, which Trump had contributed to and that was the subject of multiple tax investigations in New York before it was shuttered.
And “Roger Stone had nothing to do with my campaign,” Sharpton said, when I asked about his unlikely alliance with the self-described “GOP hitman,” who the reverend said had only helped the NAN and not his presidential bid. “If you’ve got a hatchet job, write it.”
When I cited Barrett’s comprehensive reporting (which included documentation of Stone and a wide circle of his allies delivering critical contributions to the campaign as it struggled to reach the threshold for collecting matching funds), Sharpton attacked the messenger, saying, “I could tell you 15 different stories he wrote about people in this room, including MSNBC, that were not true.”
(Barrett, who replied to that charge only by pointing to a 2011 New York Times article highlighting his decades of unblemished investigative work, reported a series of articles that same year for The Daily Beast on Sharpton’s role in helping to facilitate the merger of Comcast and NBC, a prelude to him receiving his own MSNBC television show, since demoted to Sunday mornings.)
Pressed to clarify Stone’s role in the 2004 campaign, which set the stage for Sharpton’s later ascendance in liberal media, the reverend conceded: “He introduced me to some Democratic guys that helped me, but he didn’t give me campaign advice. Roger Stone helped us with NAN, because I said while I was running, I needed to support NAN. He helped NAN.”
When I asked Stone to describe that help, he wrote in an email that: “I made a $50,000 loan to keep the civil rights organization afloat while Sharpton was running for President. It was later converted to a contribution.” The reason for this subsequent “conversion,” said Stone, was that “NAN was unable to re-pay the loan so we we had to write it off after 5 years.”
Quoting aides who worked with Sharpton, Barrett reported in 2004 that Stone’s beneficence actually amounted to upwards of $200,000, and that Stone knew full well that he’d never get the money back. Stone later told the Federal Election Commission, which investigated Sharpton’s campaign activities in light of Barrett’s reporting, that his so-called loans to NAN in fact totaled $240,400. The same FEC investigation found that NAN activities and Sharpton’s campaign were intimately commingled—Sharpton was found to have violated several provisions of election law and fined $208,000.
Still, “Roger Stone was never involved directly in my campaign,” Sharpton said, adding that Stone—who told the FEC that Sharpton was a “personal friend”—is now “working with Trump, who I’ve been beating up on.” The key word there is “directly.” Stone isn’t on Trump’s campaign payroll this year, just as he wasn’t on Sharpton’s when Barrett documented that the GOP operative played a role in staffing, financing, and managing it.
Sharpton insists he and Stone connected under innocuous or even noble circumstances. “We met during the Rockefeller drug law fight” in 2003 or 2004, he told me. “I talked at those rallies, and we got to talking.”
Stone mirrored that account: “As a libertarian I supported reform of New York’s draconian drugs laws,” he wrote. “The point is it’s not surprising that I would know Rev. Al or support his civil rights efforts as I am personally opposed to racial injustice,” concluded the man who advises Trump.
Barrett, on the other hand, saw Stone’s interest as stirring up disaffection among black voters to damage the eventual Democratic nominee, John Kerry. That may have worked. In 2004, George W. Bush won 11 percent of the black vote, up 2 percent from four years prior.
Sharpton for his part received tens of millions of dollars worth of free exposure from the debates and campaign coverage. The MSNBC host’s convention last week was sponsored by the likes of Walmart, Verizon, Airbnb, Time Warner, and Comcast, and the honorees on whom he bestowed awards included Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, a Citigroup executive, and Gloria Steinem. The event, celebrating 25 years of “no justice, no peace,” drew both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as speakers, even as Sharpton has so far declined to endorse either Democrat.
Asked when he last interacted with Stone, Sharpton said: “I might’ve bumped into him maybe a couple years ago, maybe a year ago. Just in the street once. I might have, I don’t even remember.” Stone corroborated this account: “I ran into him near Penn Station. I complimented the Camel Hair Coat his was wearing.” (sic)
About five minutes into my conversation with Sharpton, he told me, “if you want to write lies, write them,” bringing my audience with him to an end. I reached out to shake his hand and he turned, frowning, and walked off.