Two days in July: As Republicans convened in Cleveland, did Trump receive a heads-up about WikiLeaks?
By Rosalind S. Helderman and Manuel Roig-Franzia
The Washington Post|
Mar 01, 2019 | 5:43 PM
At 1:25 p.m. on July 17, 2016, an Alitalia jet carrying Donald Trump's longtime fixer and attorney Michael Cohen landed in New York, bringing him home after eight days celebrating his 50th birthday in Capri and Rome.
About 2 p.m. on July 20, a helicopter carrying Trump thumped down in a field in downtown Cleveland, delivering the presidential candidate in dramatic style to the Republican National Convention, already underway.
Between those two days — while Trump was in New York and the political world's attention was trained on Cleveland — Cohen alleges that Trump received an important phone call from his decades-long confidant Roger Stone, alerting him that WikiLeaks was planning within days to release a cache of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton.
By the end of that week, right on the heels of Trump's acceptance of the GOP nomination and as Democrats gathered in Philadelphia for their convention, WikiLeaks posted online thousands of internal Democratic Party emails that federal prosecutors allege were stolen by Russian operatives.
If true, Cohen's account, which he provided in sworn testimony to the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, would be a dramatic revelation — indicating that Trump misled the public about his knowledge of WikiLeaks' plans and, importantly, provided false written testimony to special counsel Robert Mueller III.
The existence of such a conversation could add critical new clues that could help answer a fundamental question before Mueller: Did Trump or anyone around him have knowledge of Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2016 campaign?
A close examination of the activities of the three men in the July 2016 time frame cited by Cohen shows there was a window of time in which the phone call could have occurred, according to public accounts and a travel itinerary Cohen provided The Washington Post in 2017.
However, there appears to be little other publicly available information to corroborate the claim by the former Trump attorney, who has pleaded guilty to nine felonies, including lying to Congress. He has provided no evidence to support his account, and both Trump and Stone have denied that they ever discussed WikiLeaks with one another.
And Cohen's testimony raises a major question: If the call happened as he described, why was it not specifically cited by Mueller in Stone's seven-count indictment last month, which included other references to conversations Stone allegedly had with Trump associates about WikiLeaks?
Cohen has sat for seven sessions with special-counsel prosecutors, providing what they have described as valuable and credible information.
Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney in Michigan, said the decision by prosecutors not to include a description of that call in the Stone indictment may be a sign that the "evidence is not sufficient" to corroborate Cohen's claims.
Or, she said, Mueller may be holding back information about such a call while continuing to develop evidence of a WikiLeaks-related conspiracy.
According to Stone's indictment, he spoke to senior Trump campaign officials on "multiple occasions" about the timing of WikiLeaks' releases — and lied to Congress about those conversations.
Stone, who was also indicted for alleged obstruction and witness tampering, has denied ever speaking with WikiLeaks founder JulianAssange or having advance knowledge of WikiLeaks' plans. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Stone told The Post that he never discussed WikiLeaks with Trump. "Mr. Cohen's statement is not true," he wrote in a text earlier this week.
Likewise, WikiLeaks has repeatedlysaid that Assange and Stone never communicated, including again Wednesday as Cohen testified. And Trump told the New York Times last month that he and Stone never talked about WikiLeaks.
In written answers he submitted to Mueller in November in response to questions from the special counsel, Trump asserted that Stone did not tell him about WikiLeaks' upcoming release and that he had no prior knowledge of it, according to people familiar with the material he submitted.
Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani has dismissed Cohen as a disloyal liar. In a text Thursday, he wrote, "I can't comment on the call except to say if it did take place, and I see Stone denied it, it was already public that Assange was going to do a damaging dump."
The period of time in which Cohen said Trump received the alert from Stone about WikiLeaks came at the culmination of the hard-fought GOP primary campaign — and just as Trump was readying to take on Clinton directly in the general election.
According to prosecutors, Russians had already hacked Democratic Party email accounts and were preparing to unleash the contents publicly. They had also settled on Trump as their preferred candidate and had begun a sophisticated social media campaign to sway American voters.
On July 16 — a Saturday — Trump introduced his newly named vice-presidential running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, at a campaign event at the Hilton Midtown in Manhattan.
Stone attended the event and spoke to Trump that day, according to an interview the longtime GOP operative gave broadcaster Charlie Rose a few days later.
Stone, who had worked briefly for the campaign in 2015 but was by then only an informal adviser, did not say what he discussed with Trump, instead gushing about the candidate's performance.
"He was really on his game," Stone said. "This is the best speech I've heard him give in a long time."
Cohen was out of the country during the Pence event. He told The Post in a 2017 interview that he, his wife and a group of friends had traveled to Italy for an early celebration of his milestone birthday, which was in August.
He provided an itinerary for the trip from his travel agent, which included his flight information, as well as an image of a July 15 text-message exchange he said was with Steve Van Zandt, the actor and musician. Cohen said he is an acquaintance of Van Zandt and ran into him at his Rome hotel, where Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were staying while performing in town.
"Congratulations on all your success," Van Zandt wrote Cohen, according to the text message provided by Cohen. Van Zandt could not be reached for comment.
On July 17, as Republicans began flocking to Cleveland for the party's convention, Cohen was back in New York.
Traditionally, presidential candidates do not attend the first few days of a party convention, waiting until the final night to formally accept the nomination.
But amid an ongoing fight among GOP delegates about Trump's nomination, he surprised convention-goers with a brief appearance in Cleveland that Monday evening, emerging onstage to introduce his wife, Melania.
After her speech, he flew back to New York that night. The following evening, he appearing at the convention via video from Trump Tower.
Cohen told Congress this week that he believes the conversation he overheard between Trump and Stone took place that Monday or Tuesday.
He said Trump was alerted to the call by his secretary Rhona Graff, who called out "Roger's on Line 1," according to Cohen's testimony to the House Oversight Committee.
Trump then put Stone on speakerphone, Cohen said.
Cohen alleged Stone told Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Assange and learned that a "massive dump" of emails would be published "within a couple of days."
"Wouldn't that be great?" Trump replied, according to Cohen's testimony.
At that point, there were a few public indications that Assange was planning to release information that would be damaging to Clinton — and a hint that Russia was going after the Democratic Party.
But exactly what was coming — and when — was unknown.
The previous month — on June 12 — Assange had appeared on a British television network and said WikiLeaks had "emails related to Hillary Clinton" that it planned to publish.
Two days later, The Post reported that the Democratic National Committee's servers had been hacked and the party's forensic analysis had identified Russian military intelligence as the likely culprit.
An online persona named Guccifer 2.0 then began to offer some of the stolen material online. Guccifer 2.0 was actually a front used by Russian intelligence officers, according to a July 2018 indictment of 12 Russian nationals accused of stealing and distributing the material.
Guccifer 2.0 tried and failed to send documents to WikiLeaks in June 2016, according to court documents. On July 14, Guccifer 2.0 sent the group an email with an encrypted file explaining how to access an archive of the material, prosecutors say.
On Monday, July 18 — one of the possible dates of the call that Cohen said occurred between Stone and Trump — WikiLeaks confirmed it had retrieved the archive and told Guccifer 2.0 it would release the stolen documents "this week," according to court documents.
Throughout that week, Stone was in Cleveland — huddling with Trump advisers, showing up at rallies, making provocative statements and appearing on television in seersucker suits with pocket squares.
He appeared that Monday at the Citizens for Trump "America First" Unity Rally in Cleveland, apologizing for his late arrival due to what he said was a meeting with Trump's staff.
On Wednesday, he sat for a lengthy interview with Rose, who at the time hosted his own talk show and co-hosted CBS's "This Morning."
Asked by Rose when he had last spoken with Trump, Stone responded that it had been on Saturday, the day of the Pence rally. That timing, if true, would contradict Cohen's claim that Stone and Trump spoke by phone Monday or Tuesday.
In the Rose interview, Stone said he described his role in the campaign as an "FOT — friend of Trump."
"I have no title. I have no line responsibilities," he added. "But I have access to all the right people."
Asked specifically whether that meant he had access to Trump, Stone said, "He returns my call if I call him." Their conversations, Stone said, were always about "politics."
At some point, Cohen arrived in Cleveland, telling CNN late that Wednesday night that he believed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, committed "political suicide" by not fully endorsing Trump.
The next day, Trump accepted the nomination in front of a cheering crowd.
On Friday, WikiLeaks published the hacked Democratic emails, riveting the political world.
In the wake of the emails' release, a senior Trump campaign official "was directed" to contact Stone to find out what else WikiLeaks might have about the Clinton campaign, according to Stone's indictment.
Prosecutors did not disclose why the Trump campaign believed Stone was the person who would know about WikiLeaks.
But they noted that Stone had informed senior campaign officials "by in or around June and July 2016" that WikiLeaks had documents "whose release would be damaging to the Clinton Campaign."
Whether Stone had any access to WikiLeaks remains a mystery. After the release of the DNC documents, he reached out to two associates he believed could provide a back channel to Assange, according to Stone and court documents.
On July 25, he emailed conservative author Jerome Corsi, urging him to seek new emails he heard that WikiLeaks possessed, according to a draft court document released by Corsi. And after New York comedian and radio host Randy Credico interviewed Assange on his show in August, Stone sought his help in learning more about what material WikiLeaks held, according to Stone and Credico.
Corsi and Credico have denied serving as a back channel to WikiLeaks for Stone.
Meanwhile, Stone was publicly bragging that he was in contact with Assange, who was living in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.
Since the election, Stone has said that his claims about Assange were empty boasts and that he never knew the details of WikiLeaks' plans — which included releasing thousands of emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta throughout October 2016.
It is not clear why Stone would have needed a back channel to WikiLeaks if he had been in contact with Assange in July, as Cohen has claimed he heard Stone assert.
In December, Mueller's prosecutors — without mentioning the alleged call between Trump and Stone — wrote in a memo to the court that Cohen provided information "consistent with other evidence obtained" in their investigation.
Before Cohen was sentenced to serve three years in prison, special-counsel prosecutor Jeannie Rhee told a federal judge during a hearing that he gave "credible and reliable information about core Russia-related issues under investigation."
"Rather than inflate the value of any information that he has brought forward to us in what he had to provide, Mr. Cohen has sought to tell us the truth, and that is of utmost value to us as we seek in our office to determine what in fact occurred," she said.
The Washington Post's Alice Crites and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.