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Sunday, December 4, 2016

The tumultuous split between Roger Stone and Donald Trump – allied since their introduction more than 30 years ago by the late and legendary right-wing attorney Roy Cohn – erupted from internal divisions that have troubled the real estate mogul’s presidential campaign almost from the beginning, according to knowledgeable sources. Among the figures who may seek to fill the strategic vacuum left by Stone’s abrupt departure is none other than David Bossie, who runs the Citizens United Foundation and has long been associated with disreputable figures on the Republican right.

Stone’s very public resignation followed the Fox News Republican primary debate and Trump’s subsequent sparring with moderator Megyn Kelly. He complained on CNN that when the Fox anchor raised his past misogynist remarks during the debate, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes…Blood coming out of her wherever.” Interpreted as a reference to menstruation, which Trump later denied, those words provoked a powerful backlash from across the political spectrum, leading to an angry argument between him and Stone over the debate results and aftermath.

On Saturday morning, Washington Post reporter Robert Costa tweeted an interview with Trump saying that he had fired Stone, whom he disparaged as a “publicity seeker.” Stone tweeted back: “Sorry @realDonaldTrump didn’t fire me—I fired Trump. Disagree with diversion to food fight with @megynkelly away [from] core issue messages.” The provocative political consultant and “dirty trickster” quickly produced a letter of resignation that he had sent to Trump, lamenting the end of their long personal and professional relationship, while noting that “current controversies involving personalities and provocative media fights have reached such a high volume that it has distracted attention from your platform and overwhelmed your core message … I can no longer remain involved in your campaign.” Friends of Stone confirmed to reporters that he had discussed resigning from the campaign even before the Fox debate.

Behind the media histrionics and dueling Twitter messages, however, were intrigues that sources trace to the hostility between Stone and campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, an ambitious former Capitol Hill staffer and employee of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ political operation.

On August 2, Lewandowski arranged the firing of Sam Nunberg, a Stone protégé bounced from the campaign after an anonymous informant sent an email about racist posts on Nunberg’s Facebook page, including a 2007 post mocking the daughter of Rev. Al Sharpton, to the political editor of Business Insider. Under Stone’s direction, Nunberg had almost singlehandedly prepared all of the Trump campaign’s position papers, talking points, and written materials.

But Lewandowski clashed frequently with the volatile, obsessive, wonkish Nunberg and apparently appreciated neither his abilities nor his efforts. When asked about Nunberg, Lewandowski called him “a short-term consultant,” telling CNN that the campaign would “investigate” Nunberg to determine whether he had written the racist posts; and if so, he would be terminated.

Then, despite a personal promise from Trump to Nunberg that he could resign quietly to preserve his career, Lewandowski made sure that the campaign publicly announced his dismissal. It was a gratuitous bit of nastiness that infuriated Stone, who told friends he suspected Lewandowksi’s hand in the exposure of Nunberg’s inflammatory Facebook post.

So Stone had developed a low opinion of Lewandowski well before the Fox debate, telling friends that “due diligence” ought to have precluded Trump from hiring the campaign manager. Lewandowski has no previous presidential-level experience but his résumé undeniably does include stints with former Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), who went to prison in 2006 after pleading guilty to corruption charges in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and former Senator Bob Smith (R-NH), who lost his seat in 2002 after angering fellow Republican senators and GOP leaders in his home state. In fact, Lewandowski managed Smith’s embarrassing, doomed campaign.

To those who know Stone, whose experience in national politics dates back to the 1968 Nixon campaign, his irritation at being overruled by someone of such lowly political stature was understandable. The Trump campaign, as he saw it, had become dominated by mediocre climbers who would never speak honestly to the casino mogul.

The Bossie connection also troubled Stone, according to the same sources. Trump had hired Lewandowski after meeting him at a New Hampshire event for Republican presidential hopefuls sponsored by Citizens United and Americans for Prosperity, where Bossie reportedly recommended the 40-year-old operative to Trump. Stone may suspect that Bossie – a disreputable GOP operative who runs profitable email response campaigns — might have designs on the tens of thousands of valuable names and email addresses of conservatives who have contributed money on the Trump website. In only two days, tens of thousands had signed up for a “matching campaign,” making donations that the Manhattan developer promised to double.

Stone’s frustration grew, sources say, because his attempts to influence Trump’s direction and strategy went largely ignored. Instead, he found himself on the defensive internally against adversaries who wanted both him and Nunberg ousted. The worst offense that any consultant or staffer could commit, from Trump’s perspective, was to seek publicity for himself or herself. When Vox published a profile of Stone in late July – without a single quote from him – the piece somehow landed on Trump’s desk and sent him into a rage. Meanwhile, both Lewandowski and campaign press secretary Hope Hicks, a 26-year-old former assistant to Ivanka Trump, were profiled in Politico and the Washington Post Style section, respectively – with no repercussions for either of them.

Campaign intrigues aside, Stone put himself at risk by arguing candidly with Trump instead of flattering him. While sources say that Stone’s advice wasn’t infallible – he wrongly predicted, for instance, that Trump would get little traction without traditional polling and television advertising – he was certainly correct to say that the candidate should have ignored Megyn Kelly after the Fox debate. And if Trump intends to brandish a credible third-party threat, the only figure in his campaign with any relevant competence was Stone, who helped put Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson on the 2012 presidential ballot in 48 states.

Yet the toxic tide of anti-immigrant, xenophobic acrimony that has carried Trump this far may take him further still, even without his old friend and confidant. In a “scientifically weighted” online survey released by NBC on Sunday, he is still leading the Republican race with 23 percent, essentially unchanged from his previous level of support – even though he also topped the list of biggest “losers” of the debate among Republican voters.

Photo: Roger Stone via Facebook.

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