By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was keen to keep abreast of the release of emails potentially damaging to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, reaching all the way to Trump himself, the Republican’s former deputy campaign chairman testified in court on Tuesday.
Rick Gates, testifying in the criminal trial in federal court in Washington of Trump’s longtime political adviser Roger Stone, said he witnessed a call between Trump and Stone related to the WikiLeaks website in late July 2016.
WikiLeaks disclosed several batches of stolen emails in the months before the November election that damaged Clinton. U.S. intelligence agencies and Special Counsel Robert Muller later concluded they had been stolen by Russian hackers.
Although Gates acknowledged he could not hear the contents of the call between then-candidate Trump and Stone as they were driving to LaGuardia Airport in New York City, he said that within 30 seconds or so of Trump hanging up, Trump said that “more information would be coming,” in an apparent reference to WikiLeaks.
The testimony by Gates, who appeared under a cooperation agreement, could potentially hurt Stone as he faces charges of obstructing justice, witness tampering and lying to the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee in its investigation into Russian interference in the election. Stone has pleaded not guilty.
The testimony also appears to conflict with sworn statements that Trump gave Mueller, in which the president wrote that he had “no recollection of the specifics of any conversation” with Stone from June 1, 2016 through November 8, 2016 and that he could “not recall discussing WikiLeaks” with Stone.
Both the government and Stone’s defence team rested their cases on Tuesday. Closing arguments are scheduled for 1 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Wednesday, followed by jury deliberations.
Stone, a longtime Republican operative and self-proclaimed “dirty trickster,” is accused of telling Congress five lies related to WikiLeaks.
‘GET TO ASSANGE’
One such allegation is whether Stone misled the committee in September 2017 by stating that he never spoke to Trump campaign officials about what he was hearing through an intermediary about WikiLeaks or the website’s founder, Julian Assange.
Another allegation relates to claims Stone made that comedian Randy Credico was his intermediary with WikiLeaks. Prosecutors said Stone was not talking to Credico about WikiLeaks in the summer of 2016, but rather, he was speaking to conservative author named Jerome Corsi, whom Stone instructed in one email to “get to Assange!” and learn when the Clinton emails would be coming out.
Credico testified during the trial he never actually spoke to Assange on Stone’s behalf, but at times pretended he would in order to get Stone off his back.
Gates’ testimony on Tuesday offered a window into the Trump campaign’s thinking on WikiLeaks, and appeared to align with testimony that former Trump campaign chief executive and ex-White House strategist Steve Bannon gave on Friday when Bannon said the campaign saw Stone as an “access point” to WikiLeaks.
Gates said Stone had spoken to him as early as spring 2016 about an expectation that “information would be coming out” from WikiLeaks.
He said he thought that Stone knew this through non-public information and that top campaign officials including Gates, then-campaign manager Paul Manafort and aides Jason Miller and Stephen Miller held brainstorming sessions based “in part on Mr. Stone’s predictions” about WikiLeaks’ plans.
At first, those predictions did not pan out. But when WikiLeaks finally dumped a batch of emails on July 22, 2016, the campaign was elated.
“It was, in a way, a gift,” Gates said.
Gates pled guilty last year to charges arising from Mueller’s investigation.
In a court filing on Monday, prosecutors said the testimony by Gates – who also testified last year against Manafort in a trial in which Manafort was convicted and sent to prison for 7-1/2 years – will conclude his cooperation with the government, and they asked a judge to set a mid-December sentencing date.
Stone’s attorneys tried to discredit Gates on Tuesday by repeatedly asking him about the crimes he committed with Manafort.
Later, they also filed a motion with the judge asking her to acquit Stone on charges of lying to Congress, saying the government had failed to prove that Stone actually had any intermediary with WikiLeaks. The judge has not yet ruled.
Stone’s attorneys also say that his testimony fell into line with the parameters of the committee’s investigation into Russian interference and that the scope of the probe in Stone’s mind did not include WikiLeaks or Julian Assange.
In Stone’s defence, his attorneys played the jury a roughly 50 minute-long audio tape of Stone’s closed-door testimony to the committee, introduced some documents into evidence and rested their case without calling any witnesses.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)