World / Crime & Legal

Trump's 'I Love WikiLeaks' praise fades as U.S. charges Julian Assange

Bloomberg, Reuters

Donald Trump made no secret during the 2016 campaign that he appreciated WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange for publishing thousands of hacked Democratic emails, many of them damaging to Hillary Clinton.

“I love WikiLeaks,” he said more than once as the group posted emails stolen by Russian operatives from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s Gmail account.

Once Trump won the presidency, though, the praise gave way to condemnation by top administration officials. His CIA director branded WikiLeaks “a nonstate hostile intelligence service,” and his attorney general vowed to see Assange arrested.

By Thursday, that turnabout was complete as Assange was expelled form his long-time hideout in Ecuador’s embassy in London in response to a U.S. extradition request and a criminal indictment. And Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, “I know nothing about WikiLeaks — it’s not my thing.”

That belies the praise he showered on the organization during his presidential campaign, as well as efforts by supporters to encourage its leaks of stolen Democratic documents — which often came at key moments, such as just before the Democratic National Convention and just after the Washington Post released a 2005 audiotape of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women.

“WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks,” Trump said on Oct. 10, 2016, a few days after it began posting Podesta’s emails.

“I have learned so much from WikiLeaks,” he told Fox News’s Bret Baier later that month. In the weeks leading up to the election, he called the emails it posted “incredible,” “amazing” and a “treasure trove.”

People close to Trump communicated with WikiLeaks in hopes of better weaponizing the hacked materials the group had obtained.

Donald Trump Jr. has acknowledged exchanging several private Twitter messages with WikiLeaks in September 2016, weeks before the organization published hacked emails from the Clinton campaign, which would generate headlines that haunted the Democrat’s campaign through Election Day. In the messages, he mostly answered contacts from WikiLeaks politely or not at all, though he didn’t reject communications with the website.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia interference in the 2016 campaign touched repeatedly on the role of WikiLeaks and Assange. While the charges against Assange deal only with his helping ex-U.S. Army analyst Chelsea Manning hack into classified government files, federal prosecutors could press him to reveal more about his involvement in the 2016 campaign if he’s eventually extradited to stand trial.

Trump campaign officials directed a Trump ally, Roger Stone, to contact WikiLeaks during the period when the activist website was publishing the emails, which embarrassed top Democratic officials, including Clinton, according to an indictment against Stone, who has pleaded not guilty.

Stone’s deadline for filing motions in court to dismiss the charges is Friday. One of his lawyers, Grant Smith, wouldn’t say Thursday which his arguments will make mention of Assange, or the latest developments surrounding him. “Stay tuned,” said Smith, in an email.

Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified that he overheard a phone call in which Stone gave Trump advance word that WikiLeaks would soon release hacked Democratic emails. Stone has pleaded not guilty and has denied that he worked with WikiLeaks.

Others working for Trump also embraced Assange. A poster of Assange reading “Dear Hillary, I miss reading your classified emails” hung in the Trump campaign’s workspace at the third presidential debate in 2016.

As Trump prepared for his inauguration, the president-elect tweeted approvingly about Assange’s criticism of the U.S. media and of his comments about Podesta falling for a password phishing attempt.

“Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ — why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!” Trump wrote on Jan. 4, 2017. The next day, he tweeted: “The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange — wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people.”

But by last November the president was telling reporters, “I don’t know anything about him. Really, I don’t know much about him. I really don’t.”

Trump’s comments followed moves by U.S. prosecutors Thursday to charge Assange, accusing him of conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Manning to gain access to a government computer as part of one of the largest compromises of classified information in U.S. history.

Assange, arrested by British police in London and carried out at the Ecuadorean Embassy, faces up to five years in prison on the American charge, the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement. His arrest paved the way for his possible extradition to the United States.

Assange’s indictment arose from a long-running criminal investigation dating back to former President Barack Obama’s administration.

It was triggered in part by the 2010 publication by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of U.S. military reports about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and American diplomatic communications, a disclosure that embarrassed the United States and caused strained relations with allies.

The Justice Department said Assange, 47, was arrested under an extradition treaty between the United States and Britain and was charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.

The indictment said Assange in March 2010 engaged in a conspiracy to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on Defense Department computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network (SIPRNet), a U.S. government network used for classified documents and communications.

The Justice Department said Manning had access to the computers as an intelligence analyst and was using them to download classified records to transmit to WikiLeaks. Cracking the password would have enabled Manning to log on under a username other than her own, making it harder for investigators to determine the source of the illegal disclosures, it said.

Assange was secretly indicted in March 2018 and the indictment was unsealed on Thursday, a U.S. law enforcement official said.

Manning, formerly named Bradley Manning, was jailed on March 8 after being held in contempt by a judge in Virginia for refusing to testify before a grand jury in what is widely believed to be related to the Assange investigation.

Manning was convicted by court-martial in 2013 of espionage and other offenses for furnishing more than 700,000 documents, videos, diplomatic cables and battlefield accounts to WikiLeaks while she was an intelligence analyst in Iraq. Obama commuted the final 28 years of Manning’s 35-year sentence.

“Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges,” Barry Pollack, a lawyer for Assange, said in a statement, saying the allegations “boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identify of that source.”

Representatives for Manning had no immediate comment.

The indictment stated that Manning downloaded four massive U.S. government databases containing some 90,000 Afghanistan war reports, 400,000 Iraq war reports, 800 Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs and 250,000 State Department cables. U.S. officials said the leaks endangered the lives of American troops.

Special counsel Robert Mueller scrutinized the actions of WikiLeaks in his 22-month investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election. The website published emails damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that Mueller and U.S. intelligence agencies have said were stolen by Russia in a bid to boost Republican Donald Trump’s candidacy.

The Obama administration decided not to prosecute WikiLeaks and Assange on the grounds that the website’s work was too similar to journalistic activities protected by the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of the press.

The indictment quoted from a conversation in which Assange encouraged Manning to provide more information: Manning told Assange that “after this upload, that’s all I really have got left,” with Assange replying that “curious eyes never run dry in my experience.”

WikiLeaks has faced criticism from U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In a 2017 speech when he was CIA director, Pompeo called Assange a “fraud” and WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”

But Trump praised the website during the presidential race. At a campaign rally shortly before the election, Trump said that “I love WikiLeaks” after it released the hacked Democratic emails that harmed Clinton’s candidacy.

Assange, who took refuge in Ecuador’s London embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden in connection with a sexual assault investigation, has said he does not know where the Democratic Party-related emails WikiLeaks published before the election originated, though he has said he did not get them from Russia.

A British government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the extradition process normally takes two to five years.

The fact that the United States was pursuing charges against Assange emerged in November, when a document errantly filed by federal prosecutors in Virginia in an unrelated terrorism investigation indicated that he had been indicted.