Former President Donald Trump already faces a future filled with legal battles in multiple federal, state and local jurisdictions from Georgia to the District of Columbia to New York state and Manhattan. And, now, a British court decision against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could resurrect the two seminal questions from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation: Did Trump obstruct justice, and did his campaign collude with Russia? Assange, an Australian citizen sitting in Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh in southeast London, may hold the key that reopens the prosecutive possibilities.
A British court decision against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange could resurrect the two seminal questions from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
On Friday, a U.K. court ruled that Assange can be extradited to the U.S. to face espionage charges stemming from his 2010 publication of State Department and Defense Department files provided by Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst. As explained in The New York Times, the federal case on Assange asserts that he:
“... participated in a criminal hacking conspiracy, both by offering to help Ms. Manning mask her tracks on a secure computer network and by engaging in a broader effort to encourage hackers to obtain secret material and send it to WikiLeaks. The other is that his solicitation and publication of information the government deemed secret violated the Espionage Act.”
Assange’s lawyers will appeal the extradition decision to the U.K.’s Supreme Court but, as The New York Times reported, “The ruling was a victory, at least for now, for the Biden administration, which has pursued an effort to prosecute Mr. Assange begun under the Trump administration.”
The charges against Assange concern whether an organization that exists primarily to solicit and disseminate illegally obtained government secrets can be considered a media organization entitled to First Amendment protections. They are not based on WikiLeaks publishing Democratic Party emails hacked by the Russian government in support of Trump during the 2016 election. Even so, for his sake, Trump better hope that the notorious hacker and leaker never sets foot on U.S. soil. Because If the Department of Justice plays its cards right, it can make the case precisely about those Russian government hacks and WikiLeaks' dissemination of the content of those hacks by offering a deal to Assange in return for what he knows.
That’s what should worry Trump and his allies.
Mueller wasn’t looking for the vague concept of “collusion” between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia, but on provable evidence of a criminal conspiracy with Russia to affect the election. While Mueller did find that Donald Trump Jr., and others, met with Russians at Trump Tower because they believed those Russians would provide derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, he concluded that the meeting didn’t rise to the level of a chargeable conspiracy. It’s also been found that an associate and former employee of Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was a known Russian intelligence operative who passed internal campaign data to the Russian intelligence services. While that also may have constituted collusion, it didn’t rise to the level of criminal conspiracy.
What did candidate Trump know about the WikiLeaks–Russia connection, and when did he know it?
Assange may be able to close the gap between collusion and criminal conspiracy. Assange got the Democratic National Committee data dump from an entity long suspected to be a front for the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service. In fact, WikiLeaks actively sought them out. Why? The Mueller team indicted 12 GRU officers for that hack. But what did candidate Trump know about the WikiLeaks–Russia connection, and when did he know it?
Trump confidants Manafort, Rick Gates and Michael Cohen told Mueller’s investigators that Roger Stone promised Trump that revelations from WikiLeaks would be damaging to Clinton. For example, Gates described a ride to LaGuardia Airport with Trump when Trump took a call from Stone. According to Gates, after that call, Trump told him that more releases of damaging information would be coming. If Stone, or those around him, were in criminal communication with WikiLeaks, Assange would know. He also knows how much he told Trump confidants about where he was getting the hacked DNC emails from — that is, the GRU. And Assange could say if any Trump operative told him that Trump knew of the Russian connection.
As for obstruction, the second focus of the Mueller team, Assange can help there as well. During his last news conference before the 2016 election, in response to a question about the DNC hack, Trump infamously said, “Russia, if you’re listening — I hope you are able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.” Trump says he was kidding, but the Russian intelligence service took him seriously. That same day, Russian intelligence targeted servers and domains related to Clinton and her campaign.
When questioned by Mueller’s investigators, Trump denied knowing anything about the Russian–WikiLeaks connection. At least 30 times in response to Mueller’s questions, he said he either had “no recollection” or he “didn’t know.” But if he was lying to Mueller about his knowledge of any role WikiLeaks or Russia had in assisting his campaign, then he was lying to federal agents and committing a felony. Trump’s lies would also have obstructed the special counsel investigation.
Assange may be able to help the U.S. government in exchange for more lenient charges or a plea deal. Prosecutions can make for strange bedfellows. A trade that offers a deal to a thief who steals data, in return for him flipping on someone who tried to steal democracy sounds like a deal worth doing.
So, DOJ, if you’re listening…