Lawyers for beleaguered WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claim that Donald Trump offered him a pardon if he’d claim the 2016 hacks of Democratic Party email systems had nothing to do with Russia, the Guardian reported on Wednesday.
Assange is currently detained in the UK after he evaded bail over an unrelated, since-dropped rape investigation in Sweden and held out for years in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. The U.S. is seeking his extradition on 18 charges of publishing classified information and conspiracy to commit computer intrusion that could land Assange up to 175 years in prison; Assange’s legal team has insisted that the prosecution is politically motivated and in retaliation for WikiLeaks’ humiliating release of military and espionage secrets.
According to the Guardian, Assange’s lawyers told the Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London that while visiting London in 2017, now-former GOP Representative Dana Rohrabacher offered Assange a deal: say that Russian intelligence assets had nothing to do with WikiLeaks’ release of internal Democratic National Committee emails in 2016 and walk away scot-free. The benefit for Trump would be obvious—Trump had explicitly asked Russia on the campaign trail to hack opponent Hillary Clinton and accusations of collusion were at the time a major threat to the White House. But denying Russian involvement would be the exact opposite position of the U.S. government, which has charged a dozen Russian military officers with involvement in the hack.
The investigation into Russian election interference in 2016 concluded that those officers posed as a hacker named Guccifer 2.0 to transfer stolen Democratic documents to WikiLeaks, though it’s still disputed whether WikiLeaks was aware who Guccifer 2.0 was. In fact, Assange had already insisted that the Russians were not involved in WikiLeaks’ procurement of the documents by the time of the supposed offer.
However, the case against Assange doesn’t touch on the 2016 issue and is instead about leaks of military and intelligence documents. Much of Assange’s activity was quite similar to traditional journalistic work, meaning the case has massive implications for press freedom.
Rohrabacher quickly denied that he had proposed any such deal, writing on his web site that nothing of the kind had happened. The representative claimed he was in the UK on a personal “fact finding mission” and had only given Assange a conditional offer of his own support for a pardon request:
At no time did I talk to President Trump about Julian Assange. Likewise, I was not directed by Trump or anyone else connected with him to meet with Julian Assange. I was on my own fact finding mission at personal expense to find out information I thought was important to our country.
… At no time did I offer Julian Assange anything from the President because I had not spoken with the President about this issue at all. However, when speaking with Julian Assange, I told him that if he could provide me information and evidence about who actually gave him the DNC emails, I would then call on President Trump to pardon him. At no time did I offer a deal made by the President, nor did I say I was representing the President.
Rohrabacher added that while he had told then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly about the possibility of a pardon deal, this was never followed up on. His denial didn’t address, however, whether the deal would depend on whether the “information and evidence” exonerated Russia. Rohrabacher confirmed to CNN in 2018 that he had sought the meeting and did not believe Russians were behind the DNC hacks, while Assange had repeatedly messaged the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. seeking some sort of favourable treatment.
In a statement to CNN, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham issued a typically outrage-laden denial: “The President barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he’s an ex-congressman. He’s never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject. It is a complete fabrication and a total lie. This is probably another never ending hoax and total lie from the DNC.” A “source familiar with the White House’s thinking” told CNN that Rohrabacher’s offer was never passed on specifically because staff was concerned Trump would take it, which definitely sounds credible and not at all like someone trying to cover their butt.
District judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled Assange’s claim was admissible as evidence in the extradition proceedings, according to the Guardian. Assange’s extradition trial is due to start next week and evidence won’t be presented until May 2020, with whatever decision reached months later sure to be appealed.