Roger Stone: The Ultimate Dirty Trickster, Formed by Watergate and Tempered in New Jersey

Ian T. Shearn | July 13, 2020 | Politics
New Jersey was where Stone’s bruising brand of politics pushed GOP candidates like former Gov. Tom Kean to victory. It was also where he forged his bond with Donald Trump

Roger Stone enjoyed a long career as a bombastic and shifty political operative, constantly weaving in and out of the truth and changing the rules of engagement as he went. He was always on the attack, simultaneously firing and dodging bullets — none closer and more harrowing than the one he ducked Friday when President Donald Trump commuted his upcoming federal prison sentence.

Whatever happens going forward in Stone’s life, it will likely be only a postscript to the prominent and notorious place he carved himself in American political history, one that grew to prominence in New Jersey.

Over the course of a half-century that went from the State House in Trenton to the White House in Washington, Stone launched one scorched-earth campaign after another for a list of clients that started with Richard Nixon and ends with Donald Trump. No one else can make that claim.

And it was his early years in New Jersey politics — in colorful stories that involve household political names like Kean, Florio and Gormley — in which Stone honed his skills in subterfuge and chicanery.

Stone was convicted in November of seven federal felony charges, including lying under oath to a congressional committee and then threatening a witness who could expose those lies. His conviction was the result of the investigation of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.

Former Gov. Tom Kean, an early client

Former Gov. Thomas Kean, one of Stone’s first clients, still has a soft spot for him. “Roger would come into a meeting and have 50 ideas,” Kean told NJ Spotlight recently. “One of them was good … He was always interesting.”

 

Credit: YouTube/The Circus on Showtime (CC 3.0)
Roger Stone in 2019

It was Stone’s years in New Jersey where he tempered his craft and libertarian ideology that defined his career. It is no coincidence that his time in New Jersey — throughout  1980s — overlapped the rise and fall of Donald Trump’s casino empire in Atlantic City. It was then that Stone formed a lasting though volatile codependent relationship with The Donald. This was the period when the rising GOP hit man transformed into The Prince of Darkness. He did not respond to requests for an interview.

Stone’s New Jersey chapter dates back to 1978 when he worked on the U.S. Senate campaign of an obscure speechwriter named Jeff Bell.  In a stunning upset, Bell — with Stone’s guidance — defeated four-term incumbent Clifford P. Case in the Republican primary, but lost in the general election to Democrat Bill Bradley.

In 1979, Stone distinguished himself in national GOP circles as the Northeast coordinator for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, overseeing New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. It was at this time when the 28-year-old Stone met Roy Cohn, the powerful and shady New York attorney, who was also working for Reagan’s campaign. Stone immediately embraced Cohn and became a loyal disciple. Cohn, in turn, introduced him to another of his followers, Donald Trump, and the two hit it off immediately. Stone coaxed a donation from Trump for Reagan, and the two kept in close touch from that point on.

It was also then when Stone collaborated with New Jersey’s Republican elite, and of note, Tom Kean, a young, rising star, who had become the state’s youngest ever Assembly speaker and was contemplating a run for New Jersey governor. Two years later, Kean hired Stone, who in his first solo campaign, guided Kean to the governor’s mansion in an upset victory over Jim Florio.

Stone worked for several New Jersey politicians

For the next decade Stone immersed himself in New Jersey politics, running successful campaigns for Republicans, such as state Sen. William Gormley and his successor, William “Sonny” McCullough. He also worked for former Assemblyman Ed Kline and a handful of Atlantic County pols. He would also manage campaigns for Mary Mochary, (who lost to incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley in 1984) and Jim Courter (who lost to Florio for governor in 1989). He also did some consulting work for Christie Whitman before her first gubernatorial bid.

But throughout this string of political campaigns in the Garden State and elsewhere, his No. 1 client was always Donald Trump and his Atlantic City casinos, which is likely why he bought a vacation condo in Margate, just south of Atlantic City.

Former Gov. Tom Kean

It’s hard to imagine better example of polar opposites that Tom Kean and Roger Stone.

In 1981, when Kean decided to run for governor, he had an immediate problem: He was a moderate Republican in the Reagan era. The field of GOP candidates was large, 10 in all, and Kean needed to get conservative quickly. So, he hired Stone whose new Washington lobbying firm — the notorious Black, Manafort & Stone — had gained immense popularity across the country.

Suddenly, Kean, who voted against the death penalty in the Legislature, said he would sign a death-penalty bill if it came to his desk as governor. And though he opposed Reagan in 1976, he praised him at every opportunity in 1981, even repeating the famous Reagan mantra: “Government is no longer the solution to our problems, government is the problem.”

Gormley was the most vocal member of a small group of Republican lawmakers who aligned with Democrats to pass legislation at the time, which eliminated the practice of awarding favorable ballot positions to candidates endorsed by county political organizations. Though the courts would restore the party line years later, the legislation paved the way for Tom Kean to win the Republican gubernatorial primary against the Republican establishment candidate, Paterson Mayor Lawrence “Pat” Kramer.

Kean’s new conservative image, crafted by Stone, did the trick.

To this day, Kean remains complimentary of Stone — to a point.

Kean: ‘nothing but good memories’

Hiring Stone was “one of the wisest decisions I made,” Kean said in his autobiography “The Politics of Inclusion.” One might think that he would backpedal from that glowing assessment in light of recent events. But that’s not Tom Kean. “I liked Roger,” he said in a recent interview with NJ Spotlight. “I’m sorry what’s happened to him. But I have nothing but good memories.”

With a chuckle, he added: “I was probably the worst dressed governor in the country …. somehow Roger got me on the 10 Best Dressed Governors list.”

Carl Golden, who worked on that campaign and would become Kean’s press secretary, vividly remembers the day in 1981 when Stone first strolled into Kean headquarters in his “sartorial splendor” — the Carnaby Street, tailored suit, wing collar and watch fob. He was initially impressive, Golden recalls — articulate, insightful, personable.

The single moment that captures Stone in Golden’s mind is when three days before the general election, a story was published revealing for the first time details of Stone’s complicity in Nixon’s dirty tricks campaign of Watergate fame.

“We were all nervous,” Golden said. “He took the newspaper, glanced at it and threw in in the garbage. ‘Lousy, f—-ing picture.’ … We were all relieved.”

Over the course of the campaign, Golden became more skeptical of Stone’s judgment. He soon started to wonder, “Is this someone who should have the last word?” Golden also said he and Roger “were never close” and said he always declined Stone’s repeated invitations to head to Manhattan for a drink at the end of a long day. “I later found out he was going to massage parlors on West 48th Street,” Golden said.

“Roger was personable,” says Jon Shure, a political reporter for the Bergen Record in 1981, who would later work for Florio. “Remember: He was a national guy, he was famous. This was a new thing in New Jersey.” And perhaps more importantly, “he was a quote machine.”

Helped to defeat Florio

“He was flamboyant and full of himself,” recalls David Wald, former political reporter and columnist for The Star-Ledger. “Over time, I became skeptical about what he was selling.”

Then came the primary. And Florio was considered the favorite. In a recount, Kean would prevail by the narrowest margin in New Jersey gubernatorial history.

“I still remember the number — 1,797,” Florio said in a recent interview with NJ Spotlight. And that slim margin, he insists, was the result of a very dirty trick.

That year, the state GOP party hired a swashbuckling 29-year-old named John Kelly to organize “ballot security” for New Jersey’s gubernatorial election. Kelly, who turned up in the state wearing cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat, recruited squadrons of men — many of them off-duty police officers — to descend on Black and Latino precincts around New Jersey on Election Day. Wearing “National Ballot Security Task Force” armbands, walkie-talkies, and in some cases guns, the men posted signs warning in large red letters that the areas were being patrolled.

The result was blatant voter intimidation, which would later be prohibited with a long-standing federal court order against the Republican National Committee. Stone has maintained he had nothing to do with it, but Florio recalls Stone publicly defending it with reporters at the time.

Neither Golden nor Kean say they have any knowledge that Stone was involved. And the federal lawsuit lays the blame on the RNC and RSC. In a 2009 interview, Roger Bodman, Kean’s campaign manager, said if it was not Stone, it was certainly “Stone-esque.”

Stone’s ‘bag of tricks’

But in a 2016 editorial, the New York Times pointed its finger directly at Stone and how he was still reaching back into his old bag of tricks.

“Unsurprisingly, the man behind the New Jersey voter-intimidation case that led to the original decree, Roger Stone, is now one of Mr. Trump’s top advisers. On Oct. 23, Mr. Stone, who has updated his bag of dirty tricks for the digital era, sent a now-deleted tweet intended to mislead Hillary Clinton supporters by encouraging them to “vote the new way” — by text message.”

When Stone turned 30 in 1982, he was basking in his success. Roy Cohn threw him a party at the elite ’21’ Club in Manhattan. But some political defeats awaited the overdressed dirty trickster.

That same year, he backed conservative Jeffrey Bell again for a U.S. Senate seat; he lost in the primary to Rep. Millicent Fenwick, who in turn lost to Frank Lautenberg. (Stone had also worked on Bell’s unsuccessful campaign for the same seat four years earlier.) In 1984, Stone backed Mary Mochary for U.S. Senate who lost in a landslide to Bill Bradley. Stone had called Bradley “slow on his feet, a lightweight,” but would concede later, “I have never misjudged anybody the way I misjudged Bill Bradley.”

In 1984, he was again hired as the Northeast regional director of the Reagan campaign. At the time, he confidently predicted that New Jersey will be “the state that breaks Walter Mondale’s back” and predicted Republicans would spend at least $2 million there to ensure Reagan’s victory.

Stone and Trump

That same year, he was quoted as saying he met with Trump in Atlantic City to ask how the casino owner and developer felt about a possible challenge to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. Trump declined, but in the ensuing years, Stone started urging Trump to run for president.

“Roger’s relationship with Trump has been so interconnected that it’s hard to define what’s Roger and what’s Donald,” Stone’s former partner Paul Manafort said in the documentary “Get Me Roger Stone,” released shortly after Trump’s election. “While it will be clearly a Trump presidency, I think it’s influenced by a Stone philosophy.”

Kean is now remembered as one of the most popular governors in state history. After navigating his initial primary under Stone’s stewardship, he returned to his true nature: an inclusive moderate, who over two terms ushered in reforms in environmental protection and education.

Still, he hired Stone for his re-election in 1985.

Golden recalls a meeting with just him, the governor and Stone. Basking in his work for the Reagan landslide of ’84, Stone was insisting that Kean again adopt a fervently conservative stance for his campaign. Anti-abortion, pro school busing.

“Kean sat there and quietly nodded, and then ignored his advice,” Golden said. Kean then won in a landslide, with the largest margin of victory ever recorded for a gubernatorial race in New Jersey.

In 1986, Jacob Weisberg, writing for The New Republic, coined a new moniker for Stone, which has been repeated often ever since: “The state-of-the-art Washington sleazeball.”

In 1989, with Kean stepping down because of term limits, Florio ran for governor again, this time against U.S. Rep. Jim Courter, who hired Stone. John Shure, who would become Florio’s communications director, recalls, “Stone whispering to the press that the U.S. attorney was investigating Florio,” which wasn’t true. That same year, Stone also designed a direct-mail piece for some local New Jersey candidates. With government-style writing it said, “important tax information enclosed.” It warned homeowners that their taxes had doubled, courtesy of the Democrats.

Stone: no apologies

As always, Stone was unapologetic: “The sad truth is that negative advertising works,” he told a reporter at the time. “The voters tell us they don’t like it, but they respond to it.”

Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, Atlantic City

That summer, Stone would be linked to an emerging scandal involving the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. He and another Courter aide, Greg Stevens, abruptly resigned from the campaign because of their involvement with a business associate of theirs, Paul Manafort, in a moderate-income housing project. Courter not only lost his attack dog, he had to abandon his strategy to question Florio’s integrity. The Courter campaign stalled, and Florio won convincingly.

In 1981, then Assemblyman Bill Gormley was an ardent Kean supporter and campaigned for him heavily in his Atlantic City district. This is likely when Gormley first met Stone. In 1982, Kean helped Gormley by giving Democratic Sen. Steve Perskie a judgeship and appointing Gormley to his vacated Senate seat. Facing an election in 1983, Gormley hired Stone to run his campaign and help out with some other local candidates. Gormley won the election. He used Stone again for his 1987 re-election. In all, Gormley paid Stone over $300,000 for the two campaigns. And for reasons uncertain, the relationship soured and Stone worked behind the scene to end Gormley’s political career. In 1990, he started looking for candidates to oppose him in the general election, according to press reports at the time.

There are at least two working theories about the well publicized falling-out between Stone and  Gormley — and Gormley’s not talking.

The most popular theory is the NRA. In 1990, Gormley cast the deciding vote for passage of a ban on assault weapons. This made Gormley an instant target for the NRA, which happened to be a client of Stone’s partner, Charles Black. And the NRA poured nearly $100,000 in a stealth campaign to oppose Gormley’s 1991 re-election. It almost worked. Gormley barely won against a political novice.

The other theory is Donald Trump. Gormley, known for his temper and independent nature, didn’t prove to be the obedient politician Trump preferred. When the two alpha males butted heads, Trump instructed Stone to go after him.

So, which was it? Gormley declined to comment, leaving the crux of the divide up to interpretation.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it was both,” Golden said. “Choosing Trump over Gormley would have been an easy call for Roger.”

Kean said it was difficult to keep up with the shifting loyalties of the three volatile and headstrong men. Stone, Gormley and Trump “had a falling out all of the time. They’d be working together and then not working together. …. Stone and Trump would be friends and enemies. Stone would be fired and rehired often. … Gormley would be in the middle of it all.”

If you knew Gormley, you would understand, according to former Assemblyman and Brigantine Mayor Ed Kline, who was Gormley’s running mate in 1983, and held that office until 1992.

“Bill Gormley was one of the best senators New Jersey ever had. But his personality skills weren’t always up to par,” Kline told NJ Spotlight. “Gormley was his own man, and it pissed off Trump. … Trump would call Stone and tell him to get Gormley to sit down and shut up, and it didn’t happen. …Gormley embarrassed Stone by not doing the favors he wanted him to do.”

And Kline agrees with Golden. The choice was obvious: Trump was his meal ticket.

Kline and Gormley would later have their own falling out over political allegiances, but Kline remains a passionate Trump supporter to this day.

As for Stone, Kline thinks he got a raw deal.

“Roger’s a BS artist. That’s what he does for a living. He would always ad-lib, tell stories that were half true. … The feds boxed him in. If he’s guilty of anything, he’s guilty of being a BS-er.”

When things were going south for Trump in Atlantic City

Gormley wasn’t Stone’s only concern in 1990. That was the year in which things were deteriorating for Trump in Atlantic City.

In April of that year, Jack O’Donnell, president and chief operating officer of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, resigned. Word soon got out that he was writing a tell-all book, which would be titled “Trumped!” As he often did in times of crisis, Trump turned to Stone to mitigate the damage.

“After the book came out, he used Roger to attack me,” O’Donnell said, fabricating stories that his family was mobbed up and that he was having an affair with a Trump employee.

O’Donnell said that when Trump first discovered the book was being written, he tried to intimidate O’Donnell into cancelling the project.

O’Donnell did not back down, and the book was released in 1991. The narrative portrays Trump a chronic liar, a racist and an incompetent businessman. In 1999, Trump would admit in a Playboy interview that “the stuff O’Donnell wrote about me is probably true,” and then quickly adding that he was a “loser.”

In 1999, Trump and Stone teamed up in another piece of covert chicanery. For years, Trump had feared casinos in the Catskills would drain money from his Atlantic City gambling operation. He spent over $300,000 to lobby New York state legislators to oppose and proposed Indian casino in Monticello. That was public record. But he did not disclose in those reports that he had given Stone another $150,000 to buy newspaper ads, which criticized Gov. George E. Pataki and contained the criminal histories of some members of the St. Regis Mohawk tribe.

State investigators caught wind of the illegal campaign, and the next year Trump and his associates have agreed to pay $250,000 in fines and to issue a public apology.

Although there would be no admission of wrongdoing on Trump’s part, he agreed to spend $250,000 on advertising acknowledging that he had paid for seven ads that appeared under the name of the Institute for Law and Society, an anti-gambling group in Rome, N.Y. Stone paid $100,000 of the total for his role in the unreported scheme.

But that was just one of countless Stone dirty tricks — merely a small bump in a very long road the two men traveled.

“Roger Stone belongs in someone’s novel,” says Golden. “If he didn’t exist, someone would have had to invent him.”