“A Confederacy of Grift” by Quinta Jurecic for The AtlanticFebruary 10, 2019
“The idea of a definitive “Mueller report” spelling out just what happened during the 2016 election is powerful because of its imagined ability to dispel conspiracy: Surely the alternative facts provided by the president and his supporters will wilt in the face of evidence marshaled by the no-nonsense special counsel. But the success of Stone, Corsi, and Papadopoulos in selling stories about their persecution by the deep state suggests that the conspiracy theories will be harder to do away with.”
The subjects of Robert Mueller’s investigation are cashing in.
“This is a criminal proceeding and not a public relations campaign,” declared the federal judge presiding over Roger Stone’s arraignment last week. But the evidence indicates otherwise—and that’s one reason why the conspiracy theories Stone and others are promoting may prove so difficult to dispel.
Leaving the courthouse that day, Stone flung his arms out into a Nixonian V for Victory—the second time he had made use of the former president’s signature gesture in recent weeks, after striking the pose on the steps of the federal court in Fort Lauderdale following his arrest. The Daily Caller—where Stone writes as the “men’s fashion correspondent”—soon uploaded a video of Stone providing winking advice on “how to dress for your arraignment.” Meanwhile, Stone has continued to make appearances on cable-news outlets from Fox to CNN and found time to sit down with his colleagues at the fringe website Infowars. He is selling T-shirts that read “Roger Stone Did Nothing Wrong!” along with “Roger Stones” (pieces of rock with his signature on them), and aggressively soliciting donations for his legal defense fund.
These are good times to be Roger Stone—which might seem like a strange thing to say about someone indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. But Stone is only the most recent person to treat ending up on the wrong side of the Mueller investigation as a star turn. In November 2018, Stone’s former Infowars colleague Jerome Corsi leaked what appeared to be documents relating to a draft plea agreement between himself and the special counsel’s office and is now selling a book on How I Became a Political Prisoner of Mueller’s “Witch Hunt.” George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser, and the first person to plead guilty in the Mueller investigation, went straight from expressing remorse before a judge to spinning murky conspiracy theories on Twitter about his persecution at the hands of the deep state. He, too, has a book coming out.
Despite what the judge in Stone’s case might argue, in other words, being charged with a crime—or, in Corsi’s case, almost charged with one—does actually turn out to be an excellent public-relations opportunity. For people in the greater Trump orbit, the publicity of a legal clash with Robert Mueller provides a chance to tap into the thriving marketplace of fringe pro-Trump media. Disinformation in America is a business. And the profit to be turned from that business is a warning sign that the alternative stories of the Mueller investigation spun by the president’s supporters will have a long shelf life.
Stone has always dined out on controversy. As he describes in the 2017 film Get Me Roger Stone, he prides himself on being the youngest person to testify before the Watergate grand jury; rather than trying to move on from his relatively slight involvement in the “dirty tricks” spun by the Committee to Re-Elect the President, he made a career out of it. (Any in-depth discussion of the man must, inevitably, make note of his Richard Nixon back tattoo.) Recently, he argued in a court filingthat a gag order against him would be a “violation of [his] right … to be part of the public discourse.” “Whether it is his pursuit of a posthumous pardon for Marcus Garvey, or the style of his clothes, or the state of the Nation,” the filing declared, “Roger Stone is a voice.”
Likewise, though Corsi doesn’t market himself as a dirty trickster, he too has made a business out of playing to the more disreputable corners of the American right. He rose to prominence in 2004 for his leading role in the “swift-boating” of John Kerry and has since published a string of successful, conspiratorially minded books, most notably promoting the baseless theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. (“Birtherism” claimed Donald Trump as one of its most prominent adherents, and arguably launched Trump into the political spotlight in advance of his run for president.)
If Stone made a living in part by selling notoriety, and Corsi by selling disinformation, they formally signed on in 2017 with the king of monetizing conspiracies: Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars. Charlie Warzel, who has done some of the most in-depth reporting on Jones and Infowars, writes that Stone met Jones in 2013 “at a conspiracy theorist event marking the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.” According to court documents prepared by the special counsel’s office, Corsi and Stone joined forces over the course of the 2016 election in an effort to obtain information from Julian Assange about disclosures of documents hacked by the Russian government. Then, following the election, Stone helped Corsi secure a job with Infowars as the site’s Washington bureau chief. Stone himself began co-hosting Infowars broadcasts along with Jones.
Jones’s empire may be the best example of how conspiracy theories and fringe politics can make for a profitable business. In 2013, Alex Seitz-Wald estimated in Salon that Jones was pulling in roughly $10 million a year from advertising across his various Infowars platforms—web, radio, and paid subscribers. Over the past few years, Jones appears to have switched to a similarly lucrative business model built on hawking dietary supplements, what one former Infowars employee described to BuzzFeed News as “QVC for conspiracy.”
Corsi no longer works for the publication, due to an opaque dispute from some time in 2018, and is currently suing Stone for defamation largely on the basis of Stone’s Infowars appearances. But the Infowars store still sells both Corsi’s and Stone’s books, and Stone remains one of Jones’s correspondents. His first interviewafter his arrest was with Jones: “America is under attack,” he declared over a sputtering phone connection, before requesting that listeners donate to his legal defense fund. He later appeared at an Infowars press conference in front of placards promoting StoneDefenseFund.com, which warns that Stone’s “legal fees in this epic fight could top $2 million.”
If there is good business in misinformation, in other words, there is also good business in laundering that misinformation into quasi-respectable shape for the consumption of viewers, including the president.
The connections between Jones, Stone, Corsi and the president are well-documented. Trump appeared on Jones’s show during the 2016 election, declaring, “I will not let you down.” In 2011, he spoke with Corsi regarding President Obama’s birth certificate, Mother Jones reported. While the extent to which Corsi and Jones remain in touch with Trump is unclear, they don’t have to be communicating personally in order to influence the president. As Warzel writes, the “conservative media food chain … frequently aggregates and propagates Infowars stories.” A study from the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University refers to this as an “attention backbone,” through which material from Infowars and other fringe outlets travels through outlets like the Daily Caller and Breitbart to end up on Fox News. Corsi’s and Stone’s complaints about mistreatment by Mueller’s team—originally aired, in Stone’s case, on Infowars—were both picked up by Fox. If there is good business in misinformation, in other words, there is also good business in laundering that misinformation into quasi-respectable shape for the consumption of viewers, including the president.
George Papadopoulos, once derided by Trump as a “coffee boy,” appears to understand this. He has appeared on Infowars, and the site has continued to champion him as he has popped up on Fox and the podcast of pro-Trump pundit Dan Bongino—who himself recently secured a paid position as a Fox contributor. Papadopoulos kept quiet at first following his guilty plea but began dropping ominous hints on Twitter in the months before and after his sentencing that he had been the victim of a conspiracy to bring down the president. He has a book coming out in March along those lines, with the evocative title, Deep State Target. He is filming a documentary about his plans to run for Congress and his wife’s modeling ambitions. Most recently, he announced on Twitter that he had joined the board of a medical marijuana startup, netting the previously-obscure company a spurt of news coverage. The Chicago Sun-Times writes that the startup’s founder “is now using Papadopoulos to gain access to the Trump administration, and … he hopes the connection will help him secure an appointment to the president’s opioid commission.”
Crucial to Papadopoulos’s success is his apparent grasp of a foundational principle of the pro-Trump media universe: “The only rule seems to be not to let yourself disappear,” Warzel told me, describing the playbook he views as popularized by Alex Jones. “All press is good press, and scandal is the best possible.” In this view, the ultimate aim of these grifts may be not only money but also attention. Whatever the immediate financial rewards they’ve achieved, Stone and Corsi have succeeded in keeping themselves on television.
According to the special counsel’s sentencing memo, Papadopoulos seems to have been little more than a bit player in a much larger story. But his portentous tweets have made him a minor star on the fringes of right-wing media. The self-styled victim of the conspiracy of the moment—the deep state plot, spearheaded by Mueller, to take down Trump—can do, it seems, quite well for himself.
Anyone can read the court documents spelling out the cases against the three men, and yet Stone has been able to sell the idea that, according to his T-shirts, he “Did Nothing Wrong!” and is accused of mere “process crimes” engineered by an over-aggressive prosecutor. (In a flourish of showmanship, he appears to have been wearing one of the T-shirts announcing his innocence when arrested by the FBI.) Despite Mueller’s detailed account of Papadopoulos’s interactions with a Russian government agent promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” Papadopoulos has told a parallel story in which the real collusion involves some opaque and dreadful conspiracy between the U.S. deep state, the U.K., and Australia. Corsi has gone further, preemptively leaking his draft plea agreement and hawking a book detailing his version of events.
Whatever form any report issued by the special counsel’s office eventually takes, it’s anyone’s guess whether it will have the narrative weight to counteract the pull of conspiracy theories. Perhaps the moment when Stone faces consequences and enters prison, or begins to cooperate with Mueller, is the moment when the grift falls to earth. Or perhaps he’s good enough at selling himself as a martyr to keep his version of the story going. After all, he’s spent the last 45 years turning Watergate from blemish to selling point. In a sense, he’s been preparing for this his entire life.