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Commentary: Roger Stone's got big problems - and Trump might, too

Roger Stone, informal adviser to President Donald Trump, at a resort in La Quinta, Calif., March 3, 2017. Stone says he plans to comply with a request from the Senate Intelligence Committee for records related to his contacts with Russian officials. (Jenna Schoenefeld/The New York Times/ Copyright 2018/New York TImes)

Longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone is in an increasing amount of trouble in the Russia investigation, it would seem. What's less clear is how much his trouble might ensnare President Donald Trump.

The Washington Post's Tom Hamburger, Josh Dawsey, Carol D. Leonnig and Shane Harris just dropped a big report on previously unknown alleged contacts between Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. An anonymous source says Stone spoke in spring 2016 not just about communicating with Assange, but about communications in which Assange actually spoke about having hacked Democratic emails:

"Stone, an informal adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump, said he had learned from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that his organization had obtained emails that would torment senior Democrats such as John Podesta, then campaign chairman for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton," according to the report.

"The conversation occurred before it was publicly known that hackers had obtained the emails of Podesta and of the Democratic National Committee, documents that WikiLeaks released in late July and October. The U.S. intelligence community later concluded the hackers were working for Russia."

The Post's team is reporting that none other than Stone protege Sam Nunberg is also confirming that Stone told him he had met with Assange - something Stone contends was a joke that Nunberg apparently misunderstood.

The timeline is pretty damning, and the alleged contacts seriously undermine Stone's denials of working with WikiLeaks. While it's been clear that Stone had at least some contact with WikiLeaks, this is the first clear suggestion that he had advance knowledge of the Podesta emails.

Stone's problems began with a tweet in August 2016 that said Podesta would soon experience his "time in the barrel." Weeks later, Podesta's emails were released by WikiLeaks.

Stone has argued that the tweet was referring to legal troubles ahead for the Podesta stemming from the release of the Panama Papers. But he has also admitted that he had been in contact with Guccifer 2.0 - the allegedly Russian-affiliated hacker behind the DNC emails - and that he communicated with Assange through an intermediary (allegedly a journalist) whom he has declined to name. The Atlantic's Natasha Bertrand also reported recently that Stone shared private Twitter messages with WikiLeaks in October 2016, after the Podesta emails were released.

But communicating with some hackers and/or leakers and knowing what was coming down the pike are two different things. Stone's contention that his tweet was about the Panama Papers would be severely undermined if he did in fact discuss Podesta's emails with Assange long before they were released.

The question from there is whether it would constitute collusion - and how much it might implicate the Trump campaign. That's not clear, given that Stone was an informal outside adviser rather than a campaign aide. It's also unclear whether working with WikiLeaks would amount to collusion, given its alliance with the Russians is somewhat murky (the intelligence community essentially regards it as a front for the Kremlin).

As recently as last week, Stone himself argued that working with WikiLeaks wouldn't be treasonous because it's not, in fact, aligned with Russia.

"No, actually, I don't think so because for it to be a treasonous act, Assange would have to be provably a Russian asset and WikiLeaks would have to be a Russian front, and I do not believe that is the case," Stone told Chuck Todd.

During that appearance, Stone appeared to offer a series of apparently carefully worded denials, including saying he didn't know about the "the content, the source or the exact timing of the WikiLeaks disclosures" - comments which notably still allowed for him to have known about the existence of the emails. He also said clearly, though, that he had never spoken with Trump about WikiLeaks disclosures at any point, which if true would seem to insulate the president.

Former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer said for such contacts to be criminal, you'd have to surmise Stone's intentions. But, he said, it "does provide a link for investigators."

"Did he knowingly enter into an agreement with WikiLeaks and Russia to help the Trump campaign?" Cramer said. "If he did, then he might be culpable, as would anyone else who helped facilitate the relationship and/or promise anything in return. If Assange clued-in Stone as to the source of the hacks, then investigators are on their way to building a case."

Author Information: Aaron Blake is senior political reporter for The Fix.

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