Roger Stone has a reputation as one of the most sharp-elbowed, controversial operators in American politics. In the 1970s, he dropped out of college to work for the Richard Nixon campaign arm that would become the center of the Watergate investigation; in the 1980s, his lobbying and consulting firm handled public relations in Washington for the ruthless Zaire leader Mobutu Sese Seko; today, most notoriously, he whispered advice to Donald Trump throughout his longtime friend's campaign for president, and publicly egged on those who would disseminate hacked emails from Democratic campaign staffers. He's also the subject of a new Netflix-produced documentary, Get Me Roger Stone, and is in the middle of a showdown with congressional investigators seeking his testimony on the Russian campaign meddling. His influence on the current political moment in Washington may be second only to Trump himself (whom Stone reportedly still speaks to on occasion).
That's why we couldn't pass up the opportunity to chat with him over the weekend at the annual politics-and-media conference, Politicon, in Pasadena, California. Love him or hate him, Stone might be the best positioned of anyone to make sense of the chaotic previous 10 days of this presidency. (The Senate Republicans came up short on votes for repealing Obamacare, and Trump's chief of staff, the Republican standard bearer Reince Priebus, and the communications director, Sean Spicer, both found themselves out of a job.) Standing next to a busted mini fridge in a dimly lit utility tunnel running between ballrooms in the Pasadena Convention Center, Stone sounded off on Paul Manafort, the Clinton Foundation, and Steve Bannon (whom he said "does try to suck his own cock," echoing comments made by the now-former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci). During our conversation, members of Stone's entourage stood nearby, discussing a plot to leak damaging information about an unnamed political opponent.
Any advice for John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff?
Drop [the] insane belief that marijuana is a gateway drug, because it isn't. We now have many years of medical proof that that's nonsense. And respect states' rights, and the 29 states where the people or their representatives have decided to legalize some form of marijuana distribution. I think John Kelly is a good man, but his job is not to set policy, it's to implement the president's policy, and the president was very clear that he supported states' rights on the question of medicinal marijuana.
Do you think Kelly is not that aligned with Trump, policy-wise?
Well, he's a general, generals don't have policies. You're not supposed to have policies when you're in the army; you're supposed to do as you're ordered. He's an implementer, that's his job and I think he's a highly capable man. But he should not try to project his "war on drugs" mentality to Trump; it's not what he ran on and it would break faith with the American people.
I noticed you were pretty outnumbered Saturday on the Politicon panel about Russia's meddling in the 2016 campaign. Setting aside the question of whether or not Trump actually did anything wrong, how do you think he's handling the investigation, as a political matter?
I think that you don't win on defense. You see that the super-secret [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court]-released documents in November that, without any question, prove that tens of thousands of Republicans, and Americans, were under surveillance, in violation of the Constitution and the law, by the Obama administration. That's much bigger than Watergate. That's a big, egregious violation, and it's not nothing. So instead of worrying about Russian collusion, we should be worrying about prosecuting those who were illegally, unconstitutionally spying on the political opposition.
So you want him to go after former Obama administration officials more?
In all honesty, the Clinton Foundation was never a charity, it was a slush fund for grifters. It financed a $6 million wedding for Chelsea. Bill and Hillary aren't too big to go to jail, they aren't too big to sit in a court of law and to go through a trial. They too need to do some time.
When it's all said and done, who do you think will have profited the most, personally, from their presidencies? The Clintons or the Trumps?
Oh, it's not even close. The Clintons could steal a hot stove.
How do you feel these days about Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who is reportedly near the center of [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and congressional investigations into Russia meddling?
Since he was an usher at my wedding and one of my oldest friends, and since I talked him into coming into the campaign, I feel a little bad because this has ruined his life.
But if Paul Manafort had not come to the Trump campaign, Trump would have lost the campaign at the convention, it would have been stolen from him. Manafort is a master convention organizer, and I think he brought order to the Trump campaign. I also think, at the end of the day, after tons of investigations, and all the sturm und drang, we'll find that Manafort's done nothing wrong. There was no Russian collusion; it's a delusion. It's a phony excuse that Hillary supporters give for why she spent $2 billion, Trump spent $200 million, and she lost.
What's the smartest move Trump's made so far in office?
One would be his Supreme Court justice, who I think leans a little more toward the libertarian, is not a traditional right winger, and the decision to fire Reince Preibus and hire Anthony Scaramucci.
Letting Sessions and Kelly and Chris Christie prattle on and on about gearing up a new war on drugs. Stupidest idea I've ever heard.
Do you think he's enjoying the presidency?
Yes. I think he's enjoying the attention, I think he enjoys having the power. But I think he still has to recognize the incredible power that he has to turn the tables on his tormentors.
—and throw them in jail?
Well, and put them on trial. In other words, we have a system here, but I think you could easily get an indictment over these surveillances on Americans, and then let a court decide.
How strong is our democracy right now, from one to 10, one being the Civil War?
I think it's very strong—because you can say anything you want. You can go out there and you can either agree with me or denounce me, but you won't get put in jail for speaking. I know the left would like to censor us, you see, they can't win the argument on ideas or merit, so, "Oh, you're fake news, you can't be on the Internet anymore." That's a slippery slope! Julian Assange: He's a criminal? No. Julian Assange is a journalist. Oh, we have to throw him in jail because he publishes stolen information? Read the Pentagon Papers case, New York Times vs. the U.S. Government. Publishing stolen information is just not a crime.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.