Politics is a "blood sport": Roger Stone on his CNN ban, the "real" Donald Trump and the billionaire's scheme to lure delegates

The political provocateur and former Trump aide vows to Salon that Trump will not be derailed at the convention

Published April 28, 2016 9:59AM (EDT)

Roger Stone, Donald Trump   (Fox News/AP/Chuck Burton)
Roger Stone, Donald Trump (Fox News/AP/Chuck Burton)

Love him or hate him, most people in politics have something to say about Roger Stone. A longtime political hit man, Stone has excelled in the "dark arts" of politics for close to 50 years. He came of age as an operative for Richard Nixon in the '70s and has since lobbied for and worked with Lee Atwater, Ukrainian politicians, casino operators, and various other GOP outfits. He was heavily involved in the Republican efforts to stop the 2000 Florida recount and he led the smear campaign that exposed Eliot Spitzer's relationship with a prostitute in 2008. Most recently, Stone has been championing the Trump campaign on the airwaves and via the pro-Trump super PAC he heads, "The Committee to Restore America's Greatness."

Stone is also busy promoting two books, "The Clintons' War on Women" and "Jeb! and the Bush Crime Family: The Inside Story of an American Dynasty." Recently, Salon spoke with him about this election and his odd relationship with Donald Trump. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

I've read both that you quit the Trump campaign and that you were fired – which is it? What happened? 

This is ancient history at this point. I think I've been among Trump's most effective supporters, just on my own condition. But Donald Trump had a very specific communications-based strategy in mind for his campaign. I was frankly skeptical. He proved to be right without any of the traditional trappings of politics; polling and analytics and targeting. He was correct that he could dominate the media in such a way to galvanize a lead in the race without TV commercials, without radio commercials to speak of. Without the infrastructure of a more traditional campaign. I was skeptical about that, but he's been proven right. He made modern political history. But there's a master strategy - it's his money, it's his name, he's entitled to call that tune. I did establish for both the New York Times and POLITICO numerous sources that I told the evening before, my decision to resign. So perhaps there's a miscommunication there, but at this point it's ancient history.

While you’re no longer officially a member of Trump’s team, are you still speaking to him in any advisory capacity, even informally? 

I have no formal or informal role in the campaign. I am a friend of Trump, I've known him for almost 40 years. I have great affection and respect for his family, I knew both of his parents well. I know his sister Mary­Ann Trump Barry, who I respect enormously as a judge. Her husband John Barry was a good friend of mine. So, of course, those conversations remain private and we talk politics in a broad sense, but I have no formal role. I'm not running his campaign.

Speaking of roles, what kinds of services do you provide to your clients? You're known as a master of “dirty tricks” - do you own that reputation? And do you think dirty tricks are necessary to win elections?

It is a moniker that comes out of the 1970s. I think I'm very adapted to understanding the news cycle and the use of information. I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to elect my client, short of breaking the law. Politics isn't being bad - this is a bare-knuckle contact sport in America. Politics has always historically been a blood sport. Abraham Lincoln's detractor circulated fliers accusing him of being mixed-­race. Andrew Jackson's detractors circulated newspapers saying that he had made his wife sexually available to his presidential predecessor. This is part and parcel of our political tradition. The voter is very adept at sorting out what's over the top and what isn't. In sorting out the difference between satire, political promotion and advertiser. But I think I'm very good at understanding the dynamics of a campaign and how to move votes.

Is there a line? And how do you know when you've crossed it?

Of course, there's a line, but the truth of the matter is that the dissemination of information, some people consider that a dirty trick, other people consider it public education. I don't think there's anything wrong with educating the voters about items in the historical past that may have been suppressed about Bill and Hillary Clinton - that's not a dirty trick. That's public education. Now you may have to go about drawing public attention to this information in some theatrical or promotional ways, but that's because anything that happens in American politics today is competing for voter attention, mainstream media attention as well as alternative media attention. And the media is about getting your message more broadly heard.

Sure, but the issue isn't whether or even how information is disseminated - it's about lying and distorting the record. In any case, let's pivot to this election cycle. Ted Cruz recently said you should be condemned for inciting violence and for using what he called “Saul Alinksy tactics” - what's your response?

Well as a lawyer he should read the entire transcript of what I said, as opposed to the one selective anecdote on CNN that then everybody commented on. I very clearly in the next sentence talk about a dialogue with delegates, I've gone on to explain what I want is for Trump delegates to sign the voluntary pledge. I of all people understand, as a veteran of the '68 Nixon campaign, what the violence of that presidential year did to Eugene McCarthy's prospects.

Make no mistake about it: the Move on people, the Black Lives Matter people, the other solo agit­prop professional agitators, who have been invading Trump's rallies will be there in Cleveland, seeking to provoke violence. To insight violence so that they can unfairly blame Donald Trump. I'm specifically opposed to violence. It is not violence for a voter from say, Pennsylvania, to go to the Pennsylvania delegation hotel and seek her delegates and ask her to sign a pledge. They're staying in that hotel, they're socializing in that hotel. That's where delegates are usually found during the day for anybody who's ever been to a Republican National Convention where the major sessions are at night.

I'll circle back to the point about visiting delegates at their hotels. Since you mentioned CNN, lets's talk about the offensive tweets that got you blacklisted over there. You wrote that Ana Navarro, one of CNN's commentators, was a "pompous shithead" and an "abusive diva" who's "dumber than dogshit." You removed the Tweets, but never admitted that they were racist or sexist or even wrong. Is there any circumstance in which you'd apologize for them? 

Well let me say two things: it is one thing to ban me, which I think is a bad idea. Censorship is always a bad idea - it smacks of the Soviet Union. I mean in all honesty, there is a political strategist and blogger named Wilson who has said online that somebody should put a bullet in Donald Trump, yet he still comments on CNN, so please give me a break. Secondarily, however, more objectionable than the ban is that CNN has allowed Ted Cruz to go on twice with Anderson Cooper and excoriate me falsely, attacking me by name. Fair enough, but I am afforded no opportunity to respond, that is of course journalistically unethical. That leads to the question whether CNN is really a news organization or are they an advocacy organization for a point of view. I would point out that every time Kurt Schlichter or Steve Malzberg or others start to talk about Hillary's ethical abuses of women, where she is actually an accessory after the fact to many of her husband's sex crimes, seeks to unplug the microphone. This narrative has to be heard by the American people - let them judge if they're telling the truth about the Clintons.

What do you think about the prospect of a contested Republican convention? Trump may still reach 1,237 delegates, but it's very possible that he doesn't clinch the nomination on the first ballot. If so, how do you think it plays out?

First of all it's very exciting: the first contested convention since 1976. I have been to every Republican convention since 1964, worked the floor of every one since 1972. Some of them were pretty dreary affairs, and others were very exciting. But I actually think Trump will get the magic number. I think he'll reach 1,237 votes. On the other hand, I still believe that there could be an effort to change the rules or credentials to deprive him of this nomination. And there's both a historical precedent for that in 1952, when Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio came to Chicago with the necessary votes to be nominated and the Eisenhower people successfully unseated their delegates in Texas and Louisiana. When that went before the full convention, the chairman ruled that the delegates in question couldn't vote on their own faith. That gave the Eisenhower forces a working authority and they destructed Taft's majority with that one vote, and it was over. That's why I have written so much about the whole concept of Trojan Horse delegates in this contest.

So even when Trump wins delegates, for example in Texas where he won 40 delegates, those 40 delegate slots will be filled with non-­Trump supporters. People who oppose Trump so they can vote against him on procedural matters that come before the first ballot, such as the approval of the credentials and rules for this convention. That's where the big spiel will take place, if it's going to take place.

We learned this week that Ted Cruz and John Kasich reached some sort of agreement to join forces in order to block Trump from clinching the nomination. The deal, if we can call it that, appears to have collapsed before the first primary was held. But it's rather telling that they even considered this. Thoughts?

This is not without historical precedent either. Frankly Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller had a back­door conversation together closely to try to block Richard Nixon's ascendancy on the first ballot in 1968. In 1964, Rockefeller, George Romney and Scranton banded together to try to stop Goldwater, so it's not uncommon. In this case, however, I think it just underlines the extent to which Ted Cruz is now the establishment candidate. He is now aligned with the most liberal candidate in the race in an effort to stop the outsider in this race. Cruz tries to position himself as an outsider in this race, but he's the candidate of Jeb and Neil Bush. He's the candidate of Mitt Romney. He's the candidate of Wall Street and Goldman Sachs. He's the candidate of the oil and gas industry.

How far are you willing to go to stop Cruz, Kasich and the establishment from usurping Trump at the convention? You've suggested that citizens ought to visit delegates at their hotels in Cleveland in order to, what, pressure them in person?

We addressed this, if it's not clear. The Hotel that are used by each state delegation will be publicly known. Without the room numbers, you can locate your delegates, you can use the house phone, you can try leave messages for them. The idea is to meet your representatives and ask them to take the pledge. If they don't want to take the pledge, that's fine, this isn't about arguing. This is about taking a list of those delegates who don't want to take a voluntary pledge and give them to the media, so they can be asked why did the votes of the people not matter? Why are you not respecting the will of the voters in your state. That's the point of this entire exercise. Those Trojan Horse delegates are where the real danger to Trump could lie, in some kind of tricky maneuver here to hijack this convention from Trump.

But why encourage people to physically show up at these hotels, especially in this polarized climate and in light of the violence we've already seen?

Lobbying one's delegates has happened since time immemorial whenever Republican National Conventions are held. Flooding the city with your reporters to produce a quarters to lobby delegates is a part of this process. No, we're not suggesting anybody punch anybody out. We're talking about a dialogue. We're entitled to a dialogue focusing on the Trump delegates themselves.

Is someone's personal hotel room best place for such a dialogue?

I think so. Where else are you going to find them in the fine city of Cleveland.

At the convention?

If you're the average voter, you're not permitted on the convention floor without a credential, only they are. 

What do you make of Trump's recent campaign shake-up? Do you think Corey Lewandowski, who until recently was Trump's chief adviser, is an amateur? Can Manafort and Riley put Trump over the top?

The master strategist adviser of Donald Trump has been Donald Trump. He has a masterful sense of public relations: How hard it is, when to withdraw, which is very, very seldom. He is very much his own man. Unscripted, uncoached, unprogrammed, he envisioned as I said, a communications-­based strategy. He has not spent the kind of resources on structure that would be considered to be traditional. So the campaign exists to support the tour, and the tour has been very effective in terms of Donald flying into any given city and having enormous rallies with record crowds, which the networks, local television as well as the cable news networks cover wall to wall.

So what, then, is the utility of bringing Manafort or Reilly on board?

Because now you have mechanical functions at the end that are required. In a contested convention one has to have a skill at vote counting, one has to have a very tight communications system within one's delegate operations. One needs to have internal loyalty to the people on the floor, discipline. It's a mechanical function and it is required. There is no way to foresee, in one sense that this would go towards ­warfare, although history is kind of repeating itself, in the sense that in 1976 the Reagan campaign's theory was predicated on an early knockout of Ford, and therefore Reagan did not even bother filing for delegates in a number of North­eastern states - New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York. And then that didn't happen, so Reagan bounced back to win the middle primaries and that meant that Ford and Reagan ended up scrapping at the end for delegates in the small states and state conventions, right where we are right now in a sense. And the metaphor was doomed for Ford at the time.

 I assume you'll be at the convention in July – what's your role there? To lean on delegates? Intimidate opponents?

I'm going to go out there and do some public speaking and sign some books. I'm going to be speaking out about what I think is happening. I've got a broadcast, my radio show "Stone Cold Truth," which begins on the Genesis network in April. I have to crank out a column for "Stone Zone" every day. I'll certainly be there speaking out on the issues. I don't have any formal role. I am involved with Stopthesteal.org which is organizing multiple grassroots groups like "Citizen for Trump" and "We will walk" and other pro­-Trump groups to turn out people. This is all about the numbers, making a statement through numbers.

Let's be honest: All the bombast, all the over-the-top rhetoric, all the flip-flopping – on some level isn't the Donald just performing for the cameras? Even his own campaign manager conceded that he's been playing a “part.” Can you admit that Trump's critics are right to question his sincerity?

No. I think while it would be fair to say that he dramatizes certain aspects of his presentation when he's in a speech or a talk show, there's only one Donald Trump. And it's the one you see on the stump. It's the one that has won the Republican primaries and it is the one that has the most crossover appeal to blue collar democrats and people who are sick of the two-party monopoly and the fact that they think the system is broken. So yes, he's an outsider. Is he a polished political player? No. He's not a career politician but he is not a man playing a role. There's only one Trump. He's very, very tough, and that's the quality that will be most needed in our president.

Will he be the nominee?

Yes, he will.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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