Friday's indictment of Roger Stone contains clues that may have serious implications for Steve Bannon and the right-wing website Breitbart.
Friday's indictment of longtime Trump ally Roger Stone by special counsel Robert Mueller's office could spell major trouble for Steve Bannon, Trump's former campaign CEO and White House chief strategist, as well as Breitbart News, the right-wing news outlet Bannon led from 2012-2018.
It has been previously reported that the FBI was scrutinizing conservative websites, including Breitbart News and InfoWars, to determine whether they may have assisted Russia's cyber influence operation during the 2016 campaign.
More recently, in November 2018, the Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert Mueller's team had interviewed Bannon about Stone — specifically, whether Stone had privately admitted to knowing in advance about WikiLeaks' plans to release hacked emails during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Friday's indictment sheds new light on those previous reports — and gives new reason for Bannon and Breitbart staff to be worried about the Russia investigation, given their inclusion in an indictment that essentially lays out the case for collusion.
Part of the FBI's broader investigation into collusion is about whether anyone associated with the Trump campaign assisted or coordinated with Russia as it carried out an influence operation aimed at boosting Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton. The Wikileaks email dump was a key part of that influence operation.
And the new Mueller indictment — which charges Stone with crimes including obstruction of an official proceeding, making false statements, and witness tampering — includes the text of emails that feature both Bannon and a Breitbart reporter asking Stone if he had any inside information from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
The indictment alleges that Stone received an email from "a reporter with connections to a high-ranking Trump campaign official" on or about Oct. 3, 2016.
The indictment alleges that the reporter wanted to know about the content of hacked emails that were in the possession of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. In the email to Stone, the reporter allegedly referred to Assange, asking, "what’s he got? Hope it’s good."
Stone responded "It is," then said he had been trying to get in touch with the "high-ranking Trump campaign official," but that the official hadn't returned his calls.
According to the indictment, the "high-ranking Trump campaign official" reached out to Stone the next day (Oct. 4, 2016) and asked him about the "status of future releases" from WikiLeaks.
While they remain nameless in the indictment, the identities of the "high-ranking campaign official" and the reporter connected to him can be gleaned from a series of emails published by the New York Times in November 2018.
Based on the information in that email chain, Bannon was the Trump campaign official who turned to Stone hoping to get the inside scoop on what Assange had. The reporter who said he hoped it was something "good" was Breitbart’s Washington editor, Matthew Boyle.
Bannon was the head of Breitbart before joining the Trump campaign, and returned to his role after leaving the White House. He stepped down from his position at Breitbart in 2018.
The specific wording of the emails mentioned in Friday's indictment lines up verbatim with the emails released by the Times in November, as do the dates of the emails and the relationships of those in the email chain.
Stone had allegedly been trying to get in touch with Bannon to speak to him about upcoming WikiLeaks releases, including the Oct. 7, 2016 release of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's emails.
The emails released by The Times show Boyle encouraging Bannon to call Stone on Oct. 4, 2016, writing, "Well clearly [Stone] knows what Assange has. I’d say that’s important."
According to both the emails released by The Times and the information in the indictment, Bannon emailed Stone on Oct. 4, 2016, after Assange held a press conference announcing his intent for future document leaks related to the Clinton campaign, but did not actually drop any new documents.
Apparently anxious to know if and what Assange planned to release in the near future, Bannon allegedly reached out to Stone, who allegedly assured Bannon that WikiLeaks would release "a load every week going forward."
Stone, it seems, was viewed by members of the Trump campaign as having a direct line to Assange.
As noted by the Times, "The emails show how closely intertwined Breitbart News and the campaign were and how people in Mr. Bannon’s orbit saw Mr. Stone as a direct link to WikiLeaks."
Based on today's indictment, we now know that Mueller's team also saw Stone as a direct link to Assange and WikiLeaks.
And given the names mentioned in the indictment, it seems Mueller may also be interested in why the CEO of Trump's campaign was reaching out for information about hacked emails, and why the editor of the right-wing publication he headed appears to have been involved in the effort to coordinate with Stone and WikiLeaks.
In addition to communicating generally about future WikiLeaks releases, the emails released by The Times show an apparent effort to coordinate messaging, as well as a discussion about a "targeted" campaign that Stone said he raised money for using a political organization structured to keep its donors secret.
In the final email sent from Stone on Oct. 4, 2016, he told Bannon to direct Trump campaign surrogates to spread his conspiracy theory alleging, without evidence, that Bill Clinton had a love child named Danney Williams. At the time, websites including InfoWars and Russian propaganda outlet RT were pushing the conspiracy theory referenced by Stone.
Stone also directed Bannon to "tell Rebecca [Mercer] to send us some $$$," mentioning that he had developed a "targeted black digital campaign."
According to The Times, Stone was referring to Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, who co-founded the now-defunct data firm Cambridge Analytica with Bannon.
During his time working with Cambridge Analytica, Bannon reportedly oversaw efforts to develop targeted messaging to suppress black voters — a potential explanation for Stone's reference to having developed a digital campaign targeting black voters.
While Friday's indictment doesn't allege any wrongdoing on the part of Bannon, Breitbart, or Boyle, it does show that Mueller is aware that they were apparently involved in efforts to obtain information about WikiLeaks' plans to release hacked Clinton campaign emails — and potentially to coordinate the Trump campaign's messaging so it would align with the document dumps.
The involvement of a Breitbart editor also calls into question whether the media outlet coordinated with the Trump campaign to unofficially push out campaign messages.
Such coordination is among the issues that the FBI is reportedly investigating in its probe of whether right-wing outlets in America and/or Russian propaganda outlets were involved in Russia's campaign to influence the election by strategically pushing disinformation aimed at hurting Hillary Clinton.
"Those stories got amplified by fringe elements of our media like Breitbart," said Mike Carpenter, a former senior Pentagon official who served during the Obama administration.
"They very carefully timed release of information to shift the news cycle away from stories that clearly hurt Mr. Trump, such as his inappropriate conduct over the years," he said in reference to the October 7, 2016 release of the infamous Access Hollywood video.
That incident corresponded with the release of the Podesta emails, which were leaked by WikiLeaks on Oct. 7, 2016, as well as with a surge in bot activity pushing anti-Clinton stories.
Only time will tell if Bannon and Breitbart were involved in these efforts. But Friday's indictment is a sure sign that Mueller is looking — and based on the fate of other Trump campaign associates who have come under Mueller's microscope, that's not a good place to be.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.