Roger Stone's hubris exposes Trump's plan: New video shows lawyers faked distance from Capitol riots

Tapes suggest Trump knew the insurrection was coming, but carefully avoided having his fingerprints on the planning

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 23, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Roger Stone waits for the arrival of former U.S. President Donald Trump during an event at his Mar-a-Lago home on November 15, 2022 in Palm Beach, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Roger Stone waits for the arrival of former U.S. President Donald Trump during an event at his Mar-a-Lago home on November 15, 2022 in Palm Beach, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Monday night, "The Beat with Ari Melber" on MSNBC rolled out another set of intriguing videos from "A Storm Foretold," a Danish documentary that follows Donald Trump's close aide and friend Roger Stone, both during the election and through the insurrection of January 6, 2021. Stone is an intriguing character in Trump's plot to overthrow democracy, especially as he's closely connected with the leaders of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. He maintained a group chat called "Friends of Stone," in which many now-convicted insurrection leaders — recently found guilty of leading the Capitol riot, often under severe "seditious conspiracy" charges — kept in communication. 

The documentary isn't available in the U.S. and the tapes have not been turned over to American law enforcement, because director Christoffer Guldbrandsen feels it violates journalistic ethics to do so. (Don't be hard on the guy, who was so devoted to this project that he ended up having a heart attack from the stress.) Last week, Melber's show released a video showing Stone detailing the fake electors scheme to his lackeys on November 5, 2020 — before the major news networks called the election. That proves, yet again, that the coup plan predates the election and was not, as Trump apologists claim, merely a reaction to a "sincere" belief that the election was stolen. 

Monday's video may be even more damning, but for a moment that passes so quickly nearly all observers have missed the implications. It's yet another clip of Stone ranting, in which he accidentally reveals quite a bit about how, exactly, January 6th came to be. In it, we get a hint both that Trump knew full well that the Capitol riot was in the works — and how Trump managed to keep his fingerprints off any direct planning. 

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The video captures Stone's aggravation at finding he's been barred from speaking at Trump's January 6th "Stop the Steal" rally at the Ellipse in Washington D.C. 

"I don't understand how they want us to lead the march but can't even tell us where to go," Stone whines, adding that he's not speaking directly to Rudy Giuliani or the rest of Trump's inner circle. He complains that it's "very clear that I was never on their list."

"It's just childish and it's amateurish. That's why they lost. They don't know what they're doing," he snipes. 

On MSNBC and elsewhere, the coverage has been focused on Stone's admission that Trump lost, adding to the already large pile of evidence that Trump and his co-conspirators never believed the Big Lie. But what struck me in that clip is the part right before it, where Stone indicates he's expected to "lead the march" but that the team directly around Trump has gone incommunicado. Despite Stone's claims that this is "amateurish," it actually suggests Trump and his lawyers were being quite savvy. Cutting off contact in the days before the riot means no traceable communications between them and the people who were going to storm the Capitol that day. 

One of the most frustrating aspects of the various investigations into January 6 is nailing down Trump's role in the violence. On one hand, it's obvious that the riot was integral to Trump's "fake electors" plot. He and his co-conspirators wanted to exploit the chaos to argue for substituting fake votes for real ones. He behaved all day like he expected it and his public communications, while draped in plausible deniability, also communicated his expectations of violence to his followers. Plus, as White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified during the House hearings about January 6, Trump seemed to have planned to join up with the rioters, and was only thwarted by Secret Service not driving him to the Capitol as he demanded. 

This Stone video is some of the best evidence yet that Trump and his gang both knew that the Capitol riot was coming, but also that they couldn't risk directly communicating with the people leading the charge.

On the other hand, no one has turned up any evidence that Trump directly communicated his wishes for a violent insurrection to groups like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers, who took it upon themselves to lead the charge. All the evidence shows is him riling people up with speeches and tweets, and simply trusting his followers would know what he wanted. Alas, without that direct communication, special prosecutor Jack Smith can't make insurrection charges stick in court, which is likely why he's avoided filing them. 

This Stone video suggests this was all very much by design. The people around Trump seemed to know it was of paramount importance to keep many layers of people between him and the people who actually stormed the Capitol. That way, if the insurrection failed, he could plead ignorance of the riot's planning. Which is exactly what he's doing now. That the Secret Service blocked him from physically joining the insurrection, again, shows that the people around Trump knew how he needed this distance, in order to play the whole thing off as a spontaneous riot he had no part in causing. 

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In recent days, there's been rising discussion of how the Constitution should, in theory, block Trump from being eligible to run for president again. Multiple legal scholars have pointed out that the 14th Amendment bars people from running who have violated an oath of office previously, "either through overt insurrection or by giving aid or comfort to the Constitution's enemies." Notably, the Constitution does not require a formal court conviction on insurrection charges. 

By any reasonable measure, of course, this applies to Trump. Even if he insulated himself from direct communication with people convicted of sedition, it's indisputable that he gave aid and comfort, and continues to do so by championing them and promising them pardons. But, of course, the law is not a button you push that automatically turns the clear language on paper into enforcement in real life. Without a mechanism to enforce the law or the political will to enact it, Trump is coasting straight towards a spot on a ballot he should, by law, be barred from having. 

If Trump had been indicted outright for sedition or insurrection, of course, then this conversation would suddenly feel less academic and more in the realm of real-world possibility. If he were convicted, it would be hard even for the biggest Trump apologists to claim the plain language of the Constitution doesn't apply. So it ended up mattering quite a bit that  Trump and his inner ring conspirators were careful to keep a firewall between themselves and the people who were orchestrating the riot. 

This Stone video is some of the best evidence yet that Trump and his gang both knew that the Capitol riot was coming, but also that they couldn't risk directly communicating with the people leading the charge. As Stone's comments indicate, the downside of this "no direct communication" policy was that Trump and his legal team were taking a gamble, hoping that Trump's followers could take a hint. Unfortunately, it seems that their big bet worked out in most ways. The rioters obviously picked up what Trump was putting down and didn't need explicit commands. Trump has been able to muddy the waters around the question of his responsibility for the riot, to the point where he can't be charged for inciting it, even though we all know that's what he did. And so far, he's been able to keep questions about his eligibility to run at bay, though hopefully this effort to legally bar him will gain momentum. 

That's the bad news. The good news is that none of these conspirators were nearly as savvy at hiding the paper trail of the fake electors plot, as demonstrated by the damning evidence compiled by both Smith and Georgia's Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. We may never see Trump charged directly for the events of January 6, but he wasn't nearly as clever at hiding his efforts to overthrow democracy as he thinks he was. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Donald Trump Fake Electors Plot January 6 Roger Stone