Iconoclastic Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher confirmed that he had met Wednesday with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who still remains in his self-imposed five-year exile at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, afraid he will be subject to U.S. arrest if he leaves.
The reason for the unusual meeting (Rohrabacher claims he is the first member of congress to meet with Assange), according to Rohrabacher’s office, was to glean information from Assange on the real DNC leaker with an eye toward assisting the president in fending off charges about Russian hacking in Washington, and to help the WikiLeaks founder leave the embassy a free man.
Assange has been adamant that Russia was not the source behind the leaked Democratic National Committee emails that Wikileaks published ahead of the 2016 election.
According to Rohrabacher’s office, the two met for at least three hours. In a direct conversation with John Solomon at The Hill, the 15-term California congressman said further, “Julian also indicated that he is open to further discussions regarding specific information about the DNC email incident that is currently unknown to the public.”
Then, in a Thursday statement to the press, Rohrabacher indicated he already had information from the meeting, which he had planned to “divulge” to President Trump. He went even further with The Daily Caller Thursday, suggesting a deal might be in the making:
Rohrabacher told The Daily Caller in an exclusive interview Thursday that Assange is hoping to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he is currently in asylum, and that during the meeting they explored “what might be necessary to get him out.”
The congressman told The Daily Caller that “if [Assange] is going to give us a big favor, he would obviously have to be pardoned to leave the Ecuadorian embassy.”
This was confirmed Friday by Rohrabacher spokesman Ken Grubbs, who told TAC the congressman had been thinking about Assange and “whether he could demolish the narrative that the Russians had hacked (the DNC) and he thought of speaking to Assange directly.”
Grubbs also confirmed that a pardon could be down the road—if Assange can supply the goods.
“There is nothing on the table yet. There are possibilities; that was discussed,” he told TAC. “(Rep. Rohrabacher) does believe that if Mr. Assange comes forth with the information promised he does deserve a pardon.”
He also confirmed that Rohrabacher came back with information, “but apparently more is forthcoming.”
There is a lot to unpack here. First off Assange has been neither charged nor convicted of anything, so a “pardon” would be unusual — but not unprecedented. On Sept. 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford granted recently resigned president Richard Nixon a “full, free, and absolute pardon,” making it impossible for him to be indicted for any crimes connected to the Watergate scandal. Assange and his lawyers maintain there has been a grand jury convened that will ultimately indict him, and that charges are inevitable once he leaves the embassy. This is not paranoid delusion. President Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions said outright that there is renewed interest in Assange’s arrest for publishing stolen classified government documents via Wikileaks.
Washington’s ire against the government transparency crusader began in 2010 when Wikileaks published tens of thousands of documents relating to the Afghan and Iraq Wars, along with secret State Department cables and more, leaked by then-Private Bradley Manning (now Chelsea), and has continued through more recently, when Wikileaks published more than 8,000 pages divulging CIA spying and hacking tools that could be used against Americans. Back in April, CIA director Mike Pompeo was emphatic that Wikileaks is “a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia” and should be treated as such.
The reason Assange fled to the embassy five years ago this month is that Swedish authorities wanted to serve him an arrest warrant on sex assault charges brought against him by two women back in that country, but he was afraid that both UK and Swedish authorities were just waiting to deliver him up to the Americans. So Ecuador gave him asylum.
The Swedes finally dropped their case against him in May, but the Brits say they are still obliged to pick him up on the lesser charge or failing to appear in court. UK officials have not commented on whether they have been working with the U.S. to arrest and extradite Assange, so the 45-year-old Australian is staying put for now and, judging from this reported conversation with Rohrabacher, perhaps trying to ensure his freedom by delivering a gift to Trump.
What twisted turns this story has taken since Wikileaks was heralded by many throughout the world for bringing to light many truths about the U.S. wars, its duplicity in foreign policy and its lack of candor with the American people about the failing military operations overseas, including unrecorded civilian deaths, and the torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. custody. Then, Assange was a hero of the left and libertarian right and labeled a dangerous provocateur and a criminal by the establishment on both sides for his willingness to break all norms in his mission to free information for all. Despite President Obama’s pardon of Chelsea Manning after seven years in military incarceration, Washington has been clear in its indictment of Assange, whom they do not see as a whistleblower but as an exploiter of illegally obtained property and secrets, and a risk to national security.
That is, until late 2016, when Wikileaks’ campaign of document dumps appeared coordinated to embarrass Democrat Hillary Clinton (no ally of Assange) in her election for president. The Russians have been accused of hacking DNC computers and handing 20,000 stolen emails to Wikileaks, which Assange has virulently denied. Another narrative that points to an inside leak as opposed to a Russian hack has bolstered Assange’s story more strongly in recent weeks.
Whether welcome or not, many of Assange’s old allies on the left have fallen away, and in their place are voices on the right like Sean Hannity, who seem all too happy to embrace Assange now that he’s ostensibly helped Trump win the presidency and bolster their own opposition to the Democratic narrative. (Trump himself has gone back and forth in his love/hate for Wikileaks.) Meanwhile, Assange has been accused of playing footsies with the Russians, sidelining their own transgressions in favor of embarrassing Clinton. Just last week, Foreign Policy published a piece accusing Assange of turning down a huge cache of Russian documents leaked from the Russian Interior Ministry during the 2016 election with information of Russian activities in Ukraine. Again, Wikileaks denied that it turned down the leaks based on the “country of origin,” but suggested leaks were rejected because they could not be verified, and these specifically had already been published by BBC and others in 2014. Assange raised this again in a Tweet Friday.
Rohrabacher, who in recent years has been called “Putin’s favorite congressman” has a long history with the Russians (after initially fighting, literally, against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the late 1980’s). He has been vocally skeptical of the Democratic push on the Russian hack story. In this vein, it is not surprising that he initiated this apparent negotiation with Assange in London.
Grubbs said that Trump did not ask Rohrabacher to engage, but when the time came, he would want the information Assange is presenting, and Rohrabacher would give it to him.
“Rohrabacher more than any other member, has been clear in his belief that Russia is not involved in this hack,” said John Kiriakou, the CIA whistleblower who did two years in federal prison and is now an activist for free information and protection for government whistleblowers. He, too, does not believe the Russians gave Wikileaks the DNC emails. “[Rohrabacher] is a senior member of congress, has held multiple committee chairs, is highly respected and he can carry the political weight that would allow him to bring a deal like this.”
What is curious is the confirmation that alt-right blogger and known internet troll Chuck Johnson had been involved in setting up the Rohrabacher meeting and was in the room, according to Grubbs. There is unflattering photographic proof, blared from a critic’s blog Thursday with an accompanying headline: “Photo of the Day: GOP Rep. Rohrabacher Poses With Holocaust Denier Chuck C. Johnson at Assange Meeting.”
What would this blogger, whose latest claim to fame is framing the wrong man as the driver of the car that plowed into a crowd and killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville on August 12, be doing setting up such a meeting? His reputation, which includes a host of false stories including congressmen hiring prostitutes, publicly outing and shaming the wrong woman at the center of the University of Virginia rape controversy, and being banned permanently from Twitter after he asked for help to “take out” a black civil rights activist, should disqualify him from being anywhere near this delicate situation. Grubbs acknowledged Johnson’s involvement, but said he was just one of the people who emerged to help the congressman make the connections. He intimated this is a man the congressman’s office does not know well.
Maybe he came from somewhere in the White House orbit—several stories in January placed Johnson close to the transition team.
For his part, Assange emerged from all of this clear in his intention to not involve “third parties” in his quest to get out of the embassy and from under the cloud of U.S. extradition. In a statement via Wikileaks’ Facebook page, the group acknowledged the meeting with Rohrabacher, which was “at the congressman’s request” but mentioned nothing about an exchange of information or “a pardon.”
“Mr. Assange does not speak through third parties. Only statements issued directly by him or his lawyers can be considered authoritative.”
Kiriakou agrees getting Assange out of the embassy unscathed is going to be difficult considering that Pompeo, Sessions, and other Republicans have been calling for his head for years. Trump appears in no position today to be granting safe passage for a man who published the emails that are the very bone of contention in a special counsel investigation into possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
“There has been talk about a deal in some circles,” Kiriakou tells TAC. “But a lot of important people would have to be convinced. It’s going to be difficult for anybody to make a big decision like this. It’s going to be tough.”
Kelley Vlahos is managing editor of The American Conservative. Follow her on Twitter @Vlahos_at_TAC