WASHINGTON – “WikiLeaks,” Donald Trump said at a campaign rally on Oct. 10, 2016. “I love WikiLeaks.”
That was three days after U.S. intelligence agencies issued a public warning that the Russian government was using the organization, already well known for its disclosures of government secrets, to interfere with the presidential election.
Now special counsel Robert Mueller has charged longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone with attempting to undermine government investigations by lying about his links between Trump’s campaign and WikiLeaks.
The indictment on Friday doesn’t bode well for the president’s inner circle, with its assertion that “a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact” Stone in July 2016 to learn what damaging information the group had on Democrat Hillary Clinton — although it didn’t say who gave the direction. According to the document, a “high-ranking Trump campaign official” was in touch with Stone that October before more damaging information was released.
Trump pushed back in a tweet early Saturday, comparing Stone’s actions to what he termed “the lying done by Comey, Brennan, Clapper” and other frequent targets, including Clinton.
Stone displayed his usual bravado, saying Monday that he would travel from Florida to Washington to fight the charges against him and blaming the FBI for a “raw abuse of power.” He’s due in court in Washington on Tuesday morning.
“Had they contacted my attorneys I would have voluntarily turned myself in,” Stone told reporters outside his Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, home. “I would have been able to wear a suit and tie for my mug shot, it would have looked a lot better.”
The indictment brings fresh attention to WikiLeaks, which has been antagonizing the U.S. government for years. The group and its Australian founder, Julian Assange, became famous in 2010 when it published government secrets leaked by a U.S. Army soldier now known as Chelsea Manning.
Yet Assange’s claims as a champion of transparency have lost some luster since 2012, when he took refuge in Ecuador’s embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced rape allegations that he has denied, or the U.S., where he could face charges over the publication of secret government documents.
While the U.S. has long viewed WikiLeaks as hostile to American interests, links between the group and Russia weren’t apparent before Assange started leaking information damaging to Clinton in the summer of 2016, according to a former U.S. intelligence official.
Assange has denied he was given the stolen material by Russia, but he won’t say whether it came from President Vladimir Putin’s intelligence apparatus through an intermediary.
Once the leaks were underway, an assessment about whether WikiLeaks was acting as a willing tool of Russia began to take shape inside the U.S. government, said the former official, who asked to remain anonymous speaking about a sensitive matter.
According to an indictment by Mueller’s office last July, Russian conspirators used an online persona known as Guccifer 2.0 to communicate with WikiLeaks and ultimately transfer the stolen documents. Guccifer 2.0 was known to U.S. intelligence as a Russian front, according to the former official.
On July 18, 2016, WikiLeaks confirmed to Guccifer 2.0 that it had received the material and planned to soon publish it. On July 22, WikiLeaks released more than 20,000 emails and other documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee — the first of several dramatic releases.
It was after that release that a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact Stone to find out about any other upcoming leaks and what other information WikiLeaks had on Clinton, prosecutors said in Mueller’s new indictment.
“Stone thereafter told the Trump campaign about potential future releases of damaging material” by WikiLeaks, according to the indictment, which refers to the group as “Organization 1.”
An analysis by the House Intelligence Committee conducted after the election found that WikiLeaks sent 118 tweets promoting the hacked material, and that messaging was magnified by 426,000 tweets by other users.
“WikiLeaks played a key role in Russia’s malign influence campaign and served as a third party intermediary for Russian intelligence during the period leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” according to the report by the panel, which was controlled then by Republicans. “WikiLeaks’ historic actions, which have undermined U.S. interests and been beneficial to Russia, make the organization an ideal intermediary for Russian intelligence.”
The report said there was no evidence that any Trump associate was involved in the release of emails by WikiLeaks or had access to stolen material before it became publicly available. Democrats, however, argue the investigation wasn’t thorough.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Friday that the charges against Stone have “nothing to do with the president,” and Trump tweeted: “Greatest Witch Hunt in the History of our Country! NO COLLUSION!”
Stone said he’s innocent and will plead not guilty. “I will defeat them in court,” he vowed Friday outside the federal courthouse in Ft. Lauderdale. “I believe this is a politically motivated investigation.”
American intelligence agencies have found that Russia set out to hurt Clinton’s campaign in 2016 and ultimately to help Trump win the White House. But some of those closest to Trump have said the material put out by WikiLeaks seemed fair game.
“At the time, I looked at them as essentially a media outlet” that “would have also put out negative information on Trump if it had it,” Donald Trump Jr. testified to the House Intelligence Committee in December 2017.
His father never wavered in denying collusion with Russia, but neither did he ever hide his appreciation of WikiLeaks for the disclosures that damaged his opponent.
“This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove,” Trump said at another rally in on Oct. 31, 2016, a week before he won the election.