What They Learned From Roger Stone, the Dark Lord of Lobbying
When Roger Stone was an 8-year-old growing up in the New York City suburbs, his Catholic parents were hoping John F. Kennedy would defeat Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. So Stone did, too. At school they held a mock election, and Kennedy won. Stone takes some credit for the victory after standing in the cafeteria line and assuring each student that Nixon was proposing they attend classes on weekends. It was his first lesson in the power of what he calls “disinformation” in the Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone.”
It’s what the rest of us call “lies.” Within a few years Stone was stumping for Barry Goldwater.
“He talks about his childhood and his early years in politics as his ‘Nazi Hitler Youth’ era,” says Morgan Pehme, who co-directed the film with Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro. Stone began his career as an ideologue forged in the fire of Barry Goldwater’s book “The Conscience of a Conservative.”
Following the 1976 Supreme Court ruling on Buckley v. Valeo, which removed limits on campaign financing, he co-founded Black, Manafort and Stone (and later, Kelly) in the 1980s, a pioneering lobbying firm that dared sink to new lows. “Roger was so integral in creating and expanding the consultant class to bring in foreign business and to work with foreign dictators around the spookiest people on earth,” says co-director Bank about clients like Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos, known torturers and human rights violators at the time.
He worked on Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1980 and began cultivating Donald Trump for office a few years later. In the 1990s, he served as communications director for Bob Dole’s campaign, then ran Trump’s aborted third-party bid in 2000. As recently as August 2015, Stone was an adviser to Trump, until he was fired. As the doc would have it, through it all the “conscience of the conservative” was replaced by Stone’s Rules, maxims like “admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack,” and “attack, attack, attack, never defend.”
Here, Pehmes, Bank and DiMauro talk about their candid look at right-wing firebrand Roger Stone.
Jordan Riefe: Did Stone lay down any ground rules before he let three liberal filmmakers into his life?
Dylan Bank: There were no ground rules. Our angle was to show his transformative career through the narrative of super PACs and the expansion of negative campaigning and the expansion of the mega-lobbying sector and the consultant class in Washington. As things evolved, obviously Trump became part of the story, and Roger’s story in a lot of ways told the story of the groundwork that was laid for Trump to be successful in his rise to power.
JR: Elaborate on how he was so transformative.
Morgan Pehme: What Roger has been so adept at is seeing the weaknesses in our system before everybody else understood them. So after the Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court decision in 1976, Roger and Paul (Manafort), immediately saw an opening for unlimited money in our politics. He didn’t create the opening, he drove a truck through it. Similarly, with the extension of lobbying, so you could turn around and lobby the person you just elected. He didn’t create that, but he saw the opportunity to do that. Roger saw that Trump could speak directly to the people and rile up this populist movement to elect him.
JR: Did the politics create Roger or did Roger create modern politics?
MP: He is both emblematic of a system that has been so degraded, but he has also played a key role in degrading the system.
DB: I feel like it’s both. Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, how they did both sides of the fence, and who they transformed lobbying, where they went right from campaigning for people to lobbying, a big no-no. Everyone just jumped forward and did it with no problem. It wasn’t that they made everyone do it. They opened the door a little bit, and the greasy people flew right through.
JR: What did you learn about lobbying in general while making the movie?
DB: Political consultants don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring. They go out and find prominent people, typically politicians or millionaires or celebrities, and they say, “I think you can be mayor. Or I believe you can be senator. You can be president and here’s how.” And that’s what Roger was doing to Trump since the late ’80s.
MP: Roger plays a percentage game. He would inform us that he had 10 schemes going, most of which fell completely flat. But 3 out of 10 would succeed and that gave him a batting average worthy of the Super Villain Hall of Fame.
DB: And for the first four and a half years (of their shoot), running Trump for president was just one of those schemes, not necessarily the one we took the most seriously, but it was always one he would bring up to us. And we were always like, “Oh Roger, that will never happen.”
JR: What was his reaction to Manafort’s arrest?
Daniel DiMauro: He thinks the whole Russian collusion investigation is a farce and a witch hunt. And he certainly acts like he has absolutely done nothing wrong and you can see that he says he was in contact with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. But he always says he’s admitted to it, and it’s true, but there’s nothing illegal. In terms of Manafort, he maintains this is a complete farce, and he isn’t worried about it at all.
JR: Did you ask him how he predicted the dump of Podesta’s emails?
DB: The reason we think that he knew that [it was Podesta’s “time in the barrel” was] because now we know in retrospect that [Democratic lobbyist and DNC Chief John Podesta’s brother, Tony] Podesta was working for Paul Manafort, and the Podesta Group was working for Paul Manafort. Manafort and Stone and later Peter Kelly, they were the first to work as a bipartisan consultant group. So they would work all angles.
JR: Is he worried that he’s next?
MP: Roger clearly doesn’t want to be subpoenaed. What Manafort got indicted for was something unrelated to the campaign. I think Roger is far more concerned about the special counsel probing all of Roger’s other activities, and that once the feds start looking, they will ultimately find something that he’s done wrong. So Roger has been very astute in trying to limit the nature of the probe and to really focus it on the Russian collusion side because in that particular area, he feels that there’s nothing that can be pinned on him.
JR: What about his connections to the United Kingdom in particular?
MP: When we were with Roger at the Republican National Convention he had a dinner with Alex Jones and Nigel Farage. And when we were driving to the restaurant he (Roger), said, “All we need is James O’Keefe, and we would be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” And Roger was open to us filming that dinner, but Nigel Farage was adamant about us not even being able to get the three of them on camera together. My understanding is Roger’s relationship with Nigel Farage is pretty superficial beyond that meeting at the RNC.
JR: What’s his reaction to the movie?
DB: He proclaimed it was the greatest political documentary of all time, and the main character is extremely handsome and has really great suits. He wants to play the super villain, and this kind of solidifies him in the role.
DD: We asked Roger if he thought he was going to heaven or hell. He answered that he thought he was going to heaven because all of his dirty tricks, all of the things he did were in furtherance of this wonderful political philosophy and that ultimately it was worth it.