One of the most striking aspects of US politics is not the degree of corruption — it is how much is legal that would be criminal in another democracy (Canada or Germany for example). If legalised corruption had a face it would be Roger Stone. For almost half a century, he has played the self-declared role of “dirty trickster” — planting false stories about political opponents, slandering people nominally on the same team, and making hay from a lucrative lobbying shop that advanced the causes of kleptocratic regimes in Washington DC. Among the leading clients of Black, Manafort and Stone were the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, Congo’s Mobutu and Angola’s Jonas Savimbi. As long as they dotted the legal “I’s”, they could scatter warlord blood money around town. They were known as the “torturers’ lobby”. Another client was Donald Trump. He wanted help dredging a New Jersey port that could accommodate a yacht he had just bought from the Saudi arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi. He also wanted to blunt competition from Native American reservations for his casinos. Stone and Manafort did his dirty work, none of which was illegal. Typically, Trump rarely paid his bills — and only then partially. But that was not the point. He was their kind of man.

Sailing perilously close to the edge of the law is acceptable. So too is breaking every moral law known to humankind. Frequently boasting about such activities is also fine (anyone who has not seen the Netflix documentary Get Me Roger Stone should do so). But doing all three throughout your life is to tempt fate. When you do cross the line, fate will strike back. Remember, it was an accountant who nailed Al Capone. On Tuesday Stone will be arraigned in a Washington court on seven counts of perjury, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. These are no small charges. Each is well over the criminal line. It is tempting to believe that a lifetime of thumbing your nose at the most basic moral codes eventually blinds you to legal risk-taking. Why else would Stone have so openly co-ordinated with stooges for Russian intelligence, such as WikiLeaks, and direct fronts, such as Guccifer 2.0 — and then publicly gloated about his connections? Was it because he thought he could defy gravity?

Roger Stone reacts as he walks to microphones after his appearance at Federal Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Joe Skipper     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
© Reuters

We are about to find out whether there is a gap between Stone’s bluster and his bottom line. As I wrote on Friday after he had been arrested by the FBI in a cinematic dawn raid, Stone talks like a Mafioso: he vows never to spill the beans on Trump. If that is true, he could face a long time in prison. But Mueller is not seeking divine punishment for Stone’s moral failings. He is after information about possible conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin. Should Stone sing, as the Cosa Nostra would say, he could drastically reduce any jail time. Should Stone continue to play the role of made man and keep omerta, Trump could still pardon him for his crimes. Perhaps that is what Stone is betting on. My guess is that Mueller’s next target is Donald Trump Junior. Don’t ask me to justify my hunch: Mueller’s team is the most leak-free operation in Washington’s history. If this were a real movie, Trump would know because he would have someone on the inside of Mueller’s team. But I don’t think he has the competence of a Don Corleone.

Rana, welcome back from Davos. Was there much talk on the magic mountain of Stone, Trump and the Mueller juggernaut? If the answer is no, that would confirm my view that the Russia conspiracy story is destined for a dramatic close this year. Davos never anticipates what is going to happen next….

Recommended reading

Tuesday is also a big day for British democracy. Nick Cohen has a fine piece in the Observer about how the proponents of Brexit never thought through the practical consequences of Britain’s exit. The parallels between British and American politics continue to astound.

Meanwhile, Swampians might want to catch up on both mine and Rana’s latest columns. Rana warns that we are in the late stages of a tech credit cycle with too much money chasing too little value. Can Uber really be worth its putative $100bn? I write about the caveats to Trump’s Venezuelan freedom cry. What is it about Venezuela (and Cuba and Iran) that brings out the freedom-lover in Trump?

For something completely different — and utterly absorbing — read Robert Caro’s New Yorker piece on the secrets of Lyndon Johnson’s archives. There are few more meticulous, or mellifluous, scholars of American political history than Caro. Anyone who has enjoyed his four volumes on LBJ (so far), will love this:

Rana Foroohar responds

Ed, I believe in your Davos as counter-indicator theory, which means Stone may be headed for the slammer by year’s end. Other things that will come true if your theory holds: AOC will lead a blue wave to raise taxes on the rich, the tech IPO market will collapse and China will surprise on the upside.

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We'd love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.com, contact Ed on edward.luce@ft.com and Rana on rana.foroohar@ft.com, and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce

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