NEW YORK — Florida has long been a magnet for hucksters, schemers and seedy, second-act seekers.
"A sunny place for shady people," is how Roger Stone, borrowing from writer W. Somerset Maugham, describes his adopted state. And he may be the ultimate example of a Florida-style Chapter Two.
Two decades ago, the flamboyant former Richard Nixon dirty trickster, working to elect Bob Dole president, fled to South Florida after the National Enquirer outed him and his wife as aficionados of the group sex swinger scene. Since then, he has been living most of the time in Florida, working on the fringes of propriety to torpedo the careers of enemies, to promote (and lighten the wallets of) gadfly political candidates, to sow chaos, and, above all, advance his image as one of the most effective and ruthless strategists in modern American history.
Now Stone has his most longstanding and unlikely candidate in the White House.
Stone, 64, has been urging Donald Trump to run for president since 1988.
He donned his gangster-like, double-breasted pinstripe suit at the Tribeca Film Festival last month for the premiere of Get Me Roger Stone, a documentary streaming on Netflix starting May 12.
"I think our film demonstrates that Roger is the person other than Trump who deserves the most credit for the Trump presidency," said Morgan Pehme, one of the directors, after the lights came on.
Even the Trump-loathing liberals in attendance gave Stone grudging applause, for sheer style and audacity if nothing else.
Stone is fending off a criminal investigation alleging he aided Russian efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election. But only one young man flipped a middle finger as Stone shook hands and posed for selfies outside the SVA Theatre in Manhattan.
"Sure, we can have a picture," Stone, donning Le Corbusier-style eyeglasses, told a woman on West 23rd Street. "Stone's rule: Never deny yourself the opportunity to have your picture taken with a beautiful woman."
"Stone's rules" are his oft-repeated maxims for life, an attention-craving political hit man's version of Sun Tzu's The Art of War military treatise.
Stone's rule: "The only thing worse in politics than being wrong is being boring."
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Stone tried unsuccessfully to elect a madam governor of New York and to elect a comedian mayor of Miami Beach. He has helped elect the last two sheriffs of Broward County and earned hundreds of thousands of dollars advising Scott Rothstein, a flashy Broward County lawyer who led a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme and now is serving 50 years in prison.
Stone tried to elect Larry Klayman, a conservative litigator who once sued his own mother, to the U.S. Senate representing Florida. He flirted with running for governor himself in 2014 and for U.S. Senate in 2016, hooked up longtime client Trump with Charlie Crist ("Trump still holds that against me") and helped kill a tax on sugar by enlisting help from civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to sway African-American Floridians.
He has helped presidential candidates from Republican Nixon (1972) to Democrat Sharpton (2004) to Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan (2000) to Libertarian Gary Johnson (2012). He maybe played a key role in toppling New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, spreading unsubstantiated rumors that Spitzer wore knee-high black socks when having sex with a prostitute. Or maybe he falsely took credit for playing a key role.
With Stone, the truth is murky on such matters. All matters, actually.
A "malevolent Forrest Gump," journalist Jeffrey Toobin says in the Netflix documentary, noting Stone's penchant for popping up in historic moments and campaigns to sow scandal and discord.
At a time when so many politicians rely on talking points and blandness, Stone is like an outlandish character actor in a never-ending political comedy-thriller. The man has a hand-sized tattoo of Richard Nixon between his shoulder blades.
He also is an old-school style maven and sometime fashion blogger comfortable donning a top hat at Trump's inauguration or a madras jacket during the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
(Full disclosure: I sought his advice several years ago when I bought my last suit.)
Stone's rule: "Black suits are only for chauffeurs and funeral directors." Also: "A suit without cuffs is appropriate only if you are a gigolo or in a show band."
• • •
Nobody understands better than Stone — except perhaps his confidant in the White House — how entertainment, outrageousness and lasciviousness usually trumps substance and often truth in today's culture.
"Stone is a thug who relishes personal insults, character assassination, and offensive Gestapo-like tactics that should be unequivocally dismissed by civil society, most especially those who might give him a platform from which to spew his hatred," conservative media analyst Brent Bozell, who has known Stone for decades, declared last summer, applauding the decision by CNN and MSNBC to stop inviting Stone to appear. "He is the David Duke of politics. Those with whom he is affiliated should denounce him in no uncertain terms."
One problem for reporters relying on Stone for information? He happens to be among the least trustworthy political players.
Stone shrugged this off over eggs at the Four Seasons hotel in New York City the morning after the documentary's film festival premiere.
"I think," he said, "(the reason) I get along as well with reporters and the media as I do is because, one, I don't bull---- them (Note: yes, he does) and I always tell them right up front what my motive is. (Note: Discerning his motives can be like mastering three-dimensional chess.)"
Sitting in the quiet lobby restaurant in one of his many custom-made suits, Stone nonchalantly discussed his political work in the Ukraine, his penchant for attacking people on Twitter in vulgar and offensive ways, his sexuality ("I'm trisexual. I've tried everything"), his recent party switch from Libertarian back to Republican, and his hopes and concerns for the Trump presidency.
Stone's ideology is elastic, but he generally leans libertarian and supports gay rights and decriminalizing drugs.
"I want to see his presidency not be co-opted by the very establishment figures who viciously opposed his candidacy," said Stone, suggesting it's too soon to tell whether that has happened or is likely. "If this administration becomes yet another vehicle for the neocons, if we get endless war, erosion of our civil liberties, if the massive debt and spending and borrowing continues, if our trade policies continue to steal jobs from America, and if our immigration policies continue to not seal our borders and fail to make us safer, then Donald Trump will have failed."
Stone has so effectively burnished his reputation for sinister, win-at-all-cost black bag ops that it seems remarkable it has taken so long for him to be at the center of an FBI investigation, suspected of helping the Russians meddle in the presidential election.
The circumstantial evidence:
• In June 2016, the Democratic National Committee announced its emails were hacked. Guccifer 2.0 took credit and said it had shared thousands of files and emails with WikiLeaks. U.S. intelligence believes Guccifer 2.0 is a Russian front.
• On Aug. 8, 2016, Stone spoke at a Broward County GOP club, where someone asked him about the prospects of an "October surprise" in the presidential election. Said Stone: "I actually have communicated with (WikiLeaks leader Julian) Assange. I believe the next tranche of his documents pertain to the Clinton Foundation, but there's no telling what the October surprise may be." He later said he had "back channel" communication with Assange and a "mutual friend," which Assange has denied.
• Stone and Guccifer 2.0 exchanged private messages over Twitter that same month, the Smoking Gun website reported in March. Stone has released screen shots that he says cover all their exchanges. Stone said he sent Guccifer 2.0 a message congratulating him for being reinstated to Twitter after having been barred for a period of time and that the messages were innocuous.
• Stone tweeted Aug. 21 that Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta would soon have his "time in the barrel." On Oct. 1 he tweeted ominously that in two days "@HillaryClinton is done. #Wikileaks." On Oct. 5, WikiLeaks began releasing Podesta's hacked emails.
Stone said he had no advance knowledge of what was coming from WikiLeaks and in no way colluded with Assange or Guccifer. Nor does he acknowledge that Russia had anything to do with the hacked emails.
Despite his reputation, Stone said, "there's one trick that's not in my bag: treason. I mean, that's insulting. I got attracted to politics by the anti-communism of Barry Goldwater and later, the anti-communism of Ronald Reagan. I hate the Russian system."
He says he will testify voluntarily to any House or Senate committee investigating Russia's role in the election. So long as it is in public.
Stone's rule (borrowed from writer Gore Vidal): "Never miss the opportunity to have sex or be on television."
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The son of a well-driller father and newspaper reporter mother, Stone grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., and says reading Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative turned him into a die-hard Republican before he entered high school. At age 19, he dropped out of Washington University to devote his full attention to the 1972 Nixon campaign.
Among his proudest accomplishments? Sabotaging the campaign of a potential Nixon rival, Paul McCloskey, by giving him a campaign contribution in the name of the "Young Socialists Alliance," and then leaking the receipt to the New Hampshire Union-Leader.
Four decades later, in quite a coincidence, a similar guilt-by-association tactic damaged rivals to Stone's candidate for Broward County sheriff, Scott Israel. In overwhelmingly Democratic Broward, someone calling himself "George W. Bush" made robocalls touting Israel's Democratic primary opponent, and in the general election a tea party group with ties to Stone called voters hailing the conservative credentials of then-Sheriff Al Lamberti. Stone's stepson has worked in the Sheriff's Office since 2011.
After Israel unseated Lamberti in 2012, his department hired several of Stone's associates.
Stone is vague about whether he had anything to do with those robocalls.
Stone's rule: "Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack."
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Probably what he's best known for in Florida is helping organize the so-called "Brooks Brothers riots" when demonstrators — many of them supposedly out-of-state preppies — staged an angry demonstration that prompted the Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board to halt its hand count of ballots during the 2000 presidential recount.
Stone says he directed the action from a van on the street, where he was using a walkie-talkie and eavesdropping on the Democratic recount team. He was even memorialized in the HBO film Recount, where Bush strategist James Baker orders his team to "call Roger Stone" because they are in "a street fight for the presidency of the United States."
Bradley Blakeman, a senior White House staffer under George W. Bush, was in charge of the public relations effort surrounding the Miami-Dade recount, working out of a command center RV downtown.
"Roger Stone had no role in that at all. None. Zero," said Blakeman, noting that at no time did he hear from or see Stone anywhere in the vicinity that November day.
"I mean, you can't miss him. He's a cartoon character," Blakeman said.
Such is the legend of Roger Stone. Fact and fiction blend easily together.
Stone's truth tends to be what benefits Stone, quipped Ron Gunzburger, a friend who serves as general counsel to the Broward Sheriff's Office.
"The adage from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance always applies to Roger: 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend'," Gunzburger said. "Why ruin good stories?"
Stone's rule: "Nothing is on the level."
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Stone has spent much of the past three decades working with underdog candidates bucking the political establishment. But he used to be that establishment.
He helped found the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which in the late 1970s and 1980s pioneered the use of "independent expenditures" circumventing campaign donation limits to spend lavishly on attack ads and mailers.
Stone also was in the vanguard of the revolving door system so common today where operatives help elect candidates and then trade on their contacts to make big money lobbying and advising clients.
Campaign operatives Stone, Charles Black Jr., Paul Manafort and Peter Kelly helped elect Reagan in 1980 and then established a powerhouse lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, that flourished on K Street. The Center for Public Integrity dubbed it "the torturer's lobby" because the firm represented so many unsavory foreign dictators and despots.
Stone first met Trump while helping Reagan's campaign in the northeast, introduced by Roy Cohn, who was chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during his investigations into communist activity. Cohn, who went on to represent mobsters and ultimately was disbarred, mentored both Stone and Trump.
"I would actually sit there where (Cohn) would have a (New York Post) reporter on the phone, and he would be dictating the story, dictating word for word: 'Donald Trump made a billion-dollar deal with the Saudis today, period, paragraph.' You know, it was extraordinary," Stone recalled over breakfast.
For years, Stone worked as a paid adviser to Trump on his casino and other business interests, and early on encouraged him to run for president. He arranged for Trump to speak in New Hampshire in 1988, helped Trump explore a campaign on the Reform Party ticket in 2000, explore again in 2012, and then finally launch in 2016.
Stone's friendship with Trump has run hot and cold over the years — Trump doesn't appreciate people stealing the limelight and has often accused Stone of taking credit for things he had little to do with. Stone left the Trump campaign in August 2016, either after he quit or Trump fired him, depending on whom you believe.
Stone continued to campaign for Trump and says they speak "from time to time."
"Roger has a great understanding of the media. He understands politics and he understands politicians," Trump says in Get Me Roger Stone. "He loves the game and he has fun with it and he's very good at it."
Stone's rule: "Hate is a stronger motivator than love."
• • •
Stone and his wife, Nydia, rent homes in Fort Lauderdale and New York, and he travels often to promote himself and his books. That's not always easy when he gets banned from cable TV networks, including MSNBC and CNN, for making offensive or outright racist statements on Twitter or elsewhere.
"Who is this stupid negro Roland Martin? Buffoon or token Buffoon?," Stone tweeted about a black CNN pundit. He has called Miami-based Republican operative and CNN analyst Ana Navarro "fat, stupid" and an "Entitled Diva B----."
Stone maintains clients in the gambling and sugar industries, but says he mostly makes his living on bestselling books. He apparently needs every penny, as he is paying off more than $1 million in federal tax liens.
In recent years, he has published a book on Nixon, The Clintons' War on Women, The Bush Crime Family, a book contending that President Lyndon B. Johnson was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and most recently, The Making of the President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution. Next up: a book claiming that LBJ was connected to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He has a radio show, The Stone Cold Truth, and appears every week on the assorted media platforms of InfoWars host Alex Jones, who is probably best known for his conspiracy theories that Sept. 11 was an inside job and the Sandy Hook school massacre was fake.
Noting that Jones reaches millions of Americans every day, Stone does not distance himself entirely from such conspiracy theories.
"There's a lot of unexplained details of those things that I find strange," said Stone, who also approved of Trump's high-profile, race-based questioning of Barack Obama's citizenship.
Call him a clown, a cancer on American politics, a media creation, or as Get Me Roger Stone suggests, the guy responsible for President Trump. Each description has some element of truth.
In Stone's world, all publicity is good publicity.
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @AdamSmithTimes.