WASHINGTON – President Trump appeared to speak volumes about his relationship with then-Rep. Chris Collins in a speech on Long Island in July 2017.
"Chris – right from the beginning, he said Trump is gonna win," the president said as the first Republican House member to endorse him looked on, one face in a crowd of thousands. "Trump is gonna win. So I like him. I didn't like him that much before; now I love him."
With that last sentence, Trump provided a clue that may explain why the president let the federal insider trading case against Collins – and his sentencing to prison – go by with hardly a tweet.
In contrast, Trump roiled the Justice Department last week when he tweeted that federal prosecutors, including one from Collins' former hometown of Clarence, treated Republican consultant Roger Stone unfairly when they suggested he be sentenced to up to nine years in prison for witness tampering and lying to Congress.
Collins just didn't have the same kind of relationship with Trump that Stone did, said former Trump aide Michael R. Caputo of East Aurora. He likened Collins' relationship to Trump to that of Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who similarly got sentenced to prison without Trump so strongly decrying his sentence.
"Chris Collins was an ally," said Caputo, a longtime friend of Stone's whose online petition asking Trump to pardon Stone has gathered more than 126,00 signatures. "Paul Manafort was an ally. Roger Stone is family."
Others say, though, that that fact by no means indicates that Trump will pardon Stone but not Collins. On the contrary, sources said, he still may pardon both.
Trump and Collins
Chris Collins stood where many mainstream Republicans stood in 2015: in the corner of the supposed front-runner for the party's presidential nomination, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
But Bush's campaign never caught fire – while Trump's did. So Collins pounced.
"Donald Trump has clearly demonstrated that he has both the guts and the fortitude to return our nation's jobs stolen by China, take on our enemies like ISIS, Iran, North Korea and Russia, and most importantly, re-establish the opportunity for our children and grandchildren to attain the American dream," Collins said while endorsing Trump on Feb. 24, 2016.
That evening, Collins appeared on Fox News in the first of dozens of television appearances he would make to boost Trump.
But those TV appearances belied a truth that Collins insiders and Trump insiders both knew. The two men weren't really that close.
"I don't think Chris even met Trump until 2014," said one source close to Collins.
And after that, sources allied with the two men said, their relationship was more transactional rather personal. Collins fashioned himself into a top-line Trump defender and won rewards for it: a key speaking slot at the 2016 Republican convention and then, later, a role on Trump's transition team. But the two men did not speak regularly, and usually saw each other only at events where plenty of others were present – such as a congressional picnic on the White House lawn in June 2017.
There, Collins got an email and made a phone call that would doom his career. The email, from the CEO of an Australian biotech firm where Collins sat on the board, said its only product – a multiple sclerosis drug – failed in clinical trials. The phone call went to Collins' son, Cameron, and on it, the father and son made plans for the son to dump his stock in that biotech firm based on that inside information.
The congressman and his son, as well as Cameron Collins' prospective father-in-law, got arrested about 13 months later, on Aug. 8, 2018. Over the next week, Trump tweeted about his approval ratings, "Fake News," an alt-right rally that turned violent in Charlottesville, Va., and a host of other topics – but not Chris Collins.
Trump's only oblique reference to Collins' arrest – and that of Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican and another early Trump supporter – came on Labor Day 2018. But that tweet didn't so much defend Collins and Hunter as it attacked then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
"Two long running...investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department," Trump tweeted. "Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff......"
Trump later did a robocall urging voters to re-elect Collins, which they did.
Collins resigned and pleaded guilty in October, and on Jan. 13, federal prosecutors in New York suggested that Collins receive prison time in line with federal sentencing guidelines – which is just what prosecutors in Washington would suggest regarding Stone a month later. A judge later sentenced Collins to 26 months in prison.
Trump didn't comment on any of that court action.
Trump and Stone
Trump said plenty last week when prosecutors, citing sentencing guidelines just as they did in the Collins case, called on Stone to be sentenced to from seven to nine years in prison.
"Two months in jail for a Swamp Creature, yet nine years recommended for Roger Stone (who was not even working for the Trump Campaign). Gee, that sounds very fair! Rogue prosecutors maybe? The Swamp!" Trump tweeted Wednesday.
Two months in jail for a Swamp Creature, yet 9 years recommended for Roger Stone (who was not even working for the Trump Campaign). Gee, that sounds very fair! Rogue prosecutors maybe? The Swamp! @foxandfriends @TuckerCarlson
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 12, 2020
That was one of three Trump tweets defending Stone last week, and one of seven since Stone's arrest in January 2019. But it was last week's tweets that resulted in turmoil at the Justice Department and beyond.
Word quickly leaked that the Justice Department planned on reducing its sentencing recommendation for Stone. That prompted the four prosecutors who suggested he serve up to nine years – including Clarence native Michael J. Marando – to step away from the case.
Marando declined comment last week, but in delivering his closing argument in the case against Stone last November, the prosecutor thundered "Truth still matters!" and went on to state the truth the jury would end up finding about Stone.
"When Mr. Stone came in, he lied to Congress," he said. "He obstructed their investigation, and he tampered with a witness. And that matters. And you don't look at that and you don't say: 'So what?' "
But in 2020, tweets matter, too. U.S. Attorney General William Barr made that clear in an ABC interview broadcast Thursday
Tweets about pending cases and Justice Department employees "make it impossible for me to do my job and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we're doing our work with integrity," Barr, normally a Trump loyalist, said.
Meantime, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer called for inspector general and Judiciary Committee probes into Trump's defense of Stone.
"The president ran against the 'swamp' in Washington – a place where the game is rigged by the powerful to benefit them personally," Schumer, a New York Democrat, said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "I ask my fellow Americans: what is more swampy, what is more fetid, what is more stinking, than the most powerful person in our country literally changing the rules to benefit a crony guilty of breaking the law?"
So why would the president stay silent on Collins while risking the wrath of his own attorney general to help Stone?
The answer lies in history, and the lack thereof.
A database search of "Donald Trump" and "Roger Stone" yields 666 news stories between 1988 and June 15, 2015, the day Trump announced his campaign for president. Among them are several listing Stone as a consultant for Trump as far back as 1990 and as the director of the Trump for President Exploratory Committee in 1999. A Wall Street Journal story noted that the two men became so close that Trump attended Stone's wedding – and that Stone went to two of Trump's weddings and the funerals of his parents.
A database search of "Donald Trump" and "Chris Collins" from the same time frame yields only 50 stories. Almost all of them are political blogs that mention the two men, but not in relation to each other.
Republican insiders cite other reasons, too, why the president came to the defense of Stone but not the former congressman.
For one thing, the Stone case involved his actions in connection with a special counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. That cut much closer to home for the president.
For another, Stone's defense – including Caputo's public efforts – has been much louder that the one offered by Collins' starched-collar, closed-lipped defense team.
And finally, Collins' sentencing came while Trump was facing an impeachment trial in the Senate, meaning it got little television news exposure. The initial Stone sentencing letter, in contrast, came after the Republican Senate acquitted Trump, meaning the networks and the president had more time to focus on Stone.
Does all this mean Trump is more likely to pardon Stone than Collins? Not necessarily.
As that Collins ally noted, Trump's actions regarding Stone indicate that he's not worried about any political blowback from interfering with Justice Department criminal cases.
That being the case, that source said: "If there ever was going to be a pardon, this week has gone a long way toward helping."