At a glance, the video was startling: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) appearing with an effusive Donald Trump at some sort of rally? Speaking from behind a lectern adorned with a “TRUMP” placard, Sinema offered words of bipartisanship in her own voice as Trump preened behind her. Had Sinema’s embrace of centrism gone that far?
Of course not. The video was a fake, shared over Twitter on Monday by a now-suspended user. Those who track false claims in the political conversation quickly flagged it. It was a “deep fake,” a digitally manipulated video aimed at tricking people into thinking it was real. Here, the intent seems to have been ostensibly satirical, but there have been occasions when faked videos have been used in an effort to actually fool viewers. Earlier this year, one purported to show Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urging Ukrainians to lay down their arms.
The rise of this technology has spurred concern about the extent to which viewers might someday soon have to regularly adjudicate whether they can believe what’s being presented to them, the way we now do with certain visual images. The emergence of deep fakes introduces a new skepticism.
But even before the spread of convincing, faked video becomes a real problem, the existence of such videos presents an opportunity for misinformation and deceit. You can still spot an obvious deep fake — weirdness at boundaries, unusual movements, odd situations — but it’s useful for people who want to cast doubt on real videos to pretend that fakes are indistinguishable from the real thing. Why wait for a time when every video is suspect when it’s useful to pretend they all are now?
Enter longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone.
The Washington Post reported Monday that footage of Stone captured while a documentary film crew traveled with him in 2020 and 2021 would be shown this week at a hearing held by the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot. CNN obtained some of the video, in which Stone is shown repeatedly suggesting that Trump and his allies simply reject the results of the election and block any effort to enforce a loss. At another point, he scoffs at the process of actually voting, saying, “Let’s get right to the violence.”
We’ve known that footage of Stone existed for some time. The Post first reported on the documentary in March, detailing some of what was captured by the filmmakers. Responding to questions from The Post, Stone offered a remarkable defense: “The video clips of him reviewed by The Post could be ‘deep fakes.’ ”
He repeated this claim Monday afternoon on Telegram after CNN first aired snippets of what it had obtained.
“CNN airs fraudulent deep fake videos and expects anyone to believe them,” he wrote.
Of course, there’s no evidence at all that the videos were manipulated; in fact, the claim makes no sense. Not only are there no obvious signs of the video being manipulated, but there’s no reason to think that Stone wouldn’t have said the things he’s shown saying in the clips. What made the Sinema fake suspect was, in part, that it seemed unlikely she would appear at a Trump event with Trump heaping praise on her. What makes the Stone clips not suspicious is that the tough-guy bluster and huffy machismo is very much in line with his persona.
It’s odd for Stone to disparage the reliability of the filmmakers because they provide his alibi for Jan. 6. On that day, he was holed up in a hotel in Washington, having been unable to get to Trump’s rally outside the White House. (He had been relegated to speaking at an event on the evening of Jan. 5.) As the violence unfolded, Stone was watching on the TV in his room.
But this is how it works. Stone has been an ally and adviser to Trump for a long time, and the two share an enthusiasm for creating a miasma of uncertainty that gives them space in which to maneuver. If Stone gets someone to think that these comments might be faked, it gives him deniability — and introduces new skepticism about CNN and the Jan. 6 committee.
In other contexts, though, Stone embraces proximity to violence and threats. He has been tied to the extremist group the Proud Boys, even telling journalist Andy Campbell that he had served as something of an adviser to the group’s leader, Enrique Tarrio. On Jan. 5 and 6, 2021, he had members of the Oath Keepers serving as his security detail. Stone was indicted in 2019 for witness tampering, among other things. According to federal investigators, Stone repeatedly berated a potential witness, notably suggesting that he “prepare to die.” Trump pardoned him.
This persona of toughness and power is obviously something Stone relishes, but it is also utilitarian, as were Trump’s angry claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Say something angrily enough, loudly enough and long enough, and other people will cross the line for you. Trump didn’t have to break windows at the Capitol to scare Congress away on Jan. 6; he had already set the conditions for his supporters to do so. Stone doesn’t have to go out and attack “antifa,” as the documentarians filmed him espousing; his allies in the Proud Boys are more than happy to do so.
Stone’s efforts to back away from his filmed comments now appear to mirror his quick departure from Washington on Jan. 6: Suddenly the bluster looks like it might suggest he was more involved than he wants to be. On Jan. 6, he stopped to pose for a photo with the television on, a picture that his bodyguard insisted “proves we had nothing to do with this today.” Now, perhaps uncertain about where the Jan. 6 committee is headed, he wants to introduce doubt about the provenance of the video.
Here, Stone may be following Trump, not leading. After all, remember the reporting from late 2017: Trump had begun telling people that the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape might itself have been faked.
It wasn’t, quite obviously, but what’s the harm for Trump in maybe convincing someone, somewhere, that it had been?