Lunch with the FT: Roger Stone
What’s it like to be Donald Trump’s streetfighter? On a hectic summer’s day in Manhattan, over ‘the best devilled eggs in the world’, Edward Luce finds out
We were supposed to eat at 21 Club, a celebrity Manhattan restaurant that is Roger Stone’s favourite hangout. But Stone is having a manic day. His friend Paul Manafort has just resigned as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign manager following allegations that he was paid millions of dollars in fees by a pro-Russian party in Ukraine. Stone, Trump’s longest-surviving confidant, who in March urged him to hire Manafort to professionalise his campaign, is handling the fallout. By the comic-strip standards of Trumpian politics, it is almost a normal day. As I am entering 21 Club, my phone rings. It’s Stone. “Get into a cab and come to my neighbourhood,” he says.
Twenty minutes later I find myself at a corner table in Beach Cafe, an Upper East Side burger joint that counts actress Liza Minnelli and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani among its patrons. With its checkered tablecloths and eccentrically coiffured clientele, it feels ideal for a scene in The Godfather — Part IV. “It’s kind of a casual place for A-listers who want to be out of the limelight,” proprietor Dave Goodside tells me. He selects my table carefully. On the wall next to it hangs a framed New York Post front page about Stone’s resignation from his official role in Trump’s campaign last August. These days he acts as a chief informal adviser to the tycoon and former reality TV star.
“I thought about whether to cancel lunch,” says Stone, 64, as he strolls in a few minutes later. “But then I thought, ‘Wait a second. Why?’” Wearing a tailored linen jacket and the kind of silky dark tie popular in 1970s nightclubs, Stone cuts a distinctive figure. His frame is lean and his blue eyes are sharpened by a head of shock-grey hair.
I have heard a great deal about his attack-dog manner, so I am on my guard. As a college Republican in the early 1970s, Stone was a self-described “dirty trickster” for Richard Nixon’s infamous Creep (Committee to Re-elect the President), a campaign that culminated in the Watergate scandal. Alongside his life as a Washington lobbyist in the 1980s and 1990s, Stone has been engaged in political skulduggery ever since. Among his books are Jeb! and the Bush Crime Family (2016), The Clintons’ War on Women (2015) and The Man who Killed Kennedy: the Case Against LBJ (2013).
I ask whether his resignation from Trump’s campaign last year was just for show. “That’s a slight overstatement,” says Stone, who talks at the speed of a sports commentator. Like Trump, he tends to jab the air when making a point, and these also come fast and furious. “It was clear to me that Trump had his own vision of how to be nominated. It was not a vision I shared. He never took a single poll, he was shooting from his gut the entire time — no analytics, no targeting, no paid media of any kind. He decided to bet the ranch on a communications strategy that consisted of doing as many interviews as you could jam in one day, then framing his rallies as media events that enticed the cable channels to cover them in a kind of commercial worth millions of dollars that we don’t have to pay,” he says. “I didn’t think that could work.”
Stone, who says this caused a brief falling-out with Trump, now admits that he was wrong. He had also detested Trump’s then campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who resigned earlier this year after it emerged that he had manhandled a female reporter. Lewandowski misled him on three separate things when they were “supposed to be working together”, claims Stone. “I didn’t need bullshit from a punk.” Much as Stone then convinced Trump to hire Manafort, so he has helped persuade Trump to hire Steven Bannon, the head of Breitbart News, a far-right conservative website, as a replacement for Manafort.
Like Manafort, Bannon has no previous campaign experience. Since Trump has been nosediving in the polls, I ask whether this is wise. Our shared starter, a plate of devilled eggs with bacon — “The best devilled eggs in the world,” says Stone — has arrived. Stone is drinking an iced tea. I have a Diet Coke. “More than half the voters are getting their political news right here,” says Stone, pointing to his smartphone. “Cable is on the way to being out of business. Bannon keenly understands this. He knows the Clinton oeuvre better than anyone. He has published excerpts from my books on the Clintons. He is a street fighter. He’s not afraid of the big play.”
It sounds like Hillary Clinton’s talk of a “vast rightwing conspiracy” now covers every inch of Trump’s operation. I ask whether Stone’s political hero, Nixon, whose jutting visage is tattooed on his back — “the size of a pineapple between my shoulder blades,” he tells me — would approve of such a campaign. Stone reminds me that Nixon had once written to Trump encouraging his ambitions. “He wrote: ‘Mrs Nixon says you should run for president,’ which was Nixon’s way of saying he recommended it,” says Stone.
This reminds me that for the first time in decades, Ronald Reagan is, at least temporarily, not the patron saint of the Republican party. Under Trump, it has returned to the darker ways of Nixon. Probing why is one of the reasons I wanted to have lunch with Stone. I also wanted to learn more about the anger behind Trump’s campaign. Stone explains why he chose to tattoo Nixon on his back. “It is a daily reminder that in life when things don’t go your way, when you get knocked down, again and again, instead of quitting, you dust yourself off and start again.
“That’s the way Nixon was. He does not come from privilege. His gangster, bootlegger father is not buying him the presidency [as Stone alleges that Joe Kennedy did for JFK when he defeated Nixon in 1960]. Elites are soft — they don’t have the belly for the long fight. They didn’t want to see Vietnam to the end. There is also the subtext of inherited wealth.”
Hold on, I protest, Trump was also born into great wealth. We are by now on our main courses — Stone has a curried chicken salad, and I have a poached salmon salad. Stone gives high marks to his salad’s freshness, as I do mine. In spite of a professed weakness for ale, and Stolichnaya Martinis, Stone had said he was too busy today to drink alcohol. So what, I prompt, about Trump’s gilded origins?
“Trump never loses his Queens roots,” says Stone. “His father Fred is, like Donald, more comfortable in the company of carpenters or plumbers than other wealthy people. He’s [Donald] the only billionaire I know who is not elite. He doesn’t like hedge fund guys — ‘They don’t pay any taxes, they’re rich. I see them at my club. I love charging them $350,000 for the privilege of paying top dollar for food. Why aren’t these guys paying their fair share?’ So, I think he has a middle-class sensibility and an ability to relate to working people that WASPy elites don’t have.”
Stone himself can certainly make that claim. Raised in a middle-class family on the New York-Connecticut border, he grew up in a relatively apolitical household, although both his parents were Eisenhower supporters. “I wanted to be an actor but my parents thought this was a bad idea,” he says. “They wanted me to be an electrician or a plumber.”
Stone’s epiphany came from an elderly lady who lived next door — “The classic old lady in tennis shoes” — who gave him a copy of Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, which changed his outlook on life. Goldwater was heavily defeated by Lyndon B Johnson in the 1964 election. He also read another iconoclastic conservative tract, A Choice Not an Echo, by Phyllis Schlafly, who turned 92 the other day. Stone persuaded Trump to call her to wish her a happy birthday. “Once I found Goldwater, that was kind of it,” says Stone. “I realised Lyndon Johnson was a corrupt psychopath. I didn’t understand why anyone would vote for this crook. ”
But Stone’s real coming-of-age came with Nixon, who ran and won in 1968: “Nixon talked about the silent majority, and the forgotten American — just like Trump is doing.” Today Stone’s blue-collar childhood neighbourhood is filled with McMansions. “It’s quite swanky these days,” he says.
Stone is keen to underline that both he and Trump were also fans of Reagan. They first met because Stone was asked to set up Reagan’s first presidential campaign in New York state. He turned to the young property developer for help. It was 1979 and Trump was already a New York tabloid celebrity. His first impression of Trump never left him. “Trump’s office resembled the stateroom scene [a chaotic interlude] from a Marx Brothers movie. He was on the phone, people were coming in to have him sign documents, assistants bringing in notes, a guy comes by with samples so he can choose tiles for his club in Kuala Lumpur. It’s very frenetic and kind of cool, and he’s just a beehive of activity — supercharged, decisive, yelling at people on the phone: ‘I need new plans drawn up. That’s not good enough’ — so I’m trying to make my pitch in this chaos and he says, ‘I’m in. Let me know what I can do’.” This, Stone believes, is how Trump would operate as president.
After Reagan was elected, Stone set up a Washington lobbying group with Manafort, the pugilistic Lee Atwater, who was later to become George Bush senior’s election strategist, and Charlie Black, who remains in the same line of business. One of his first clients was Trump’s resorts and casinos.
The only time he and Trump genuinely fell out was when Stone played a role in the 2008 downfall of Eliot Spitzer, governor of New York, who was nailed by the FBI for wiring money to prostitutes across state boundaries. Trump had donated money to Spitzer’s campaigns. Stone, a self-confessed “libertine” who in the 1990s was exposed for having advertised in a swinger’s magazine, met a woman in a Miami nightclub who claimed to be one of Spitzer’s call-girls. Stone later used that information against Spitzer, who resigned in ignominy. Trump, who saw Spitzer as a friend, did not speak to Stone for two years. When Trump first said he was thinking about a run for the White House, Spitzer went on TV and “ripped Trump a new asshole”, in Stone’s words. “That same afternoon Trump called me as if I had never been gone,” he says.
Until now I’ve been in two minds about whether even to raise Trump’s reputation for having lived a Playboy Mansion lifestyle. Like Stone, Trump was a visitor to Studio 54, the legendary no-holds-barred discotheque in 1970s New York. Like Stone, Trump belongs to the wing of the Republican party that believes government should stay out of the bedroom as well as the boardroom. Over the years, Trump has frequently boasted about his female conquests. Yet he has secured the Republican nomination by convincing the party’s evangelical wing that he was a born-again Christian.
Was it all for show? “The attitude of the evangelical Christians is, ‘I don’t care what you were for three years ago. Who cares if you were for homosexuality 10 years ago. Now you are saved’.” But how could they possibly believe Trump? “Well it [Trump’s Christian declarations] got him nominated,” Stone says ruefully. “I assume there was a calculus there.” What about you, I ask Stone, are you still a libertine? Stone seems to misunderstand the question and embarks on a long answer about how he has always been a libertarian. No, I correct — libertine. Stone pauses: “I decline to discuss my private life because I’m not a candidate for public office and I’ve never been a far-right Christian,” he says.
Fair enough. Stone is, however, keen to make a point about Trump’s arch-rival Ted Cruz, who wears his Christian zeal on his sleeve. The Trump campaign is still smarting from Cruz’s decision last month not to endorse Trump at his convention in Cleveland. Instead he called for Republicans to “vote with their conscience” in November.
We have finished eating. Both of us order double espressos. Stone sounds increasingly caffeinated as our meal progresses. “Trump appeals to evangelicals because he’s a leader,” he says. “Ted Cruz is an oily, duplicitous Dominionist [a branch of evangelicalism]. I keep waiting for the guy to drop to the ground and start speaking in tongues or working with snakes. He’s a fraud.”
What about Hillary Clinton, I ask? What happens if she beats Trump? Stone’s words spill out even faster than before. At one point, he sounds so strident that half the restaurant turns to see what the fuss is about. “If she wins, we’re done as a nation,” Stone shoots back. “We’ll be overrun by hordes of young Muslims, like Germany and France, raping, killing, violating, desecrating. You can see that. It’s happening there.” Stone is so enraptured by his dystopian nightmare, he appears not to notice that everyone can hear him. “If Hillary wins, there will be widespread unrest, civil disobedience, badly divided government in which half the country believes she, her daughter, and her husband belong in prison. There’ll be no goodwill. No honeymoon. There will be systematic inspection of all of her actions because someone who has been a crook in the past will be a crook in the future. It will be sad. I’ll probably be forced to move to Costa Rica.”
Alarmed by the direction of Stone’s prophecies, I ask if he ever thinks of anything other than politics. His manner changes. The hellscape recedes. “Of course I do,” he says and launches into an enthusiastic account of the “bipartisan fashion columns” he writes for the Daily Caller, another conservative website, which include drawing up a worst- and best-dressed list every year. The late Ted Kennedy used to make the cut — mostly for his Shetland sweaters. Stone also approves of Bill Clinton’s Windsor collars. “They really work,” he says. He also likes Trump’s Brioni suits. “Trump practically invented the red business tie in the 1980s,” he says.
But Stone can’t keep away from the subject of Hillary. I have paid the bill and it is time to go. Around 30 minutes ago, Stone had said he must leave soon. Now he lingers to make his point. “Hillary has been on my worst-dressed list for three years — she has no idea what she looks good in,” says Stone. “I think Stevie Wonder must be dressing her.” He is so fond of this age-old quip he repeats it. His joke underlined, we shake hands and head off in opposite directions.
This article was first published on FT.com on August 26, 2016. The author, Edward Luce, is the FT’s chief US columnist and commentator. Illustration by James Ferguson.
Sign up for a FT.com trial for only $1 here.