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On Wednesday, February 19, it was revealed that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was allegedly offered a pardon by US President Donald Trump to cover up links to Russia. This according to pre-trial depositions made by Assange’s lawyers in his extradition trial.
Assange’s role in leaking emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has put him and his organization under scrutiny.
While Russia’s efforts to influence global and regional politics has been known for years, Trump has often denied or downplayed Russia’s role in his winning the presidential election.
Assange’s extradition trial
Faced with 18 criminal counts related to hacking and espionage in the United States, Assange may soon be extradited to go on trial in the US.
Assange had managed to avoid trial for alleged criminal charges, including accusations of rape, by spending nearly seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
However, in April 2019, Ecuador revoked Assange’s political asylum and the activist was promptly arrested by British police. As an Australian citizen, both Australia and the United Kingdom have said they would not allow Assange to be extradited to the US if he could face the death penalty, which both countries have abolished.
The US has said Assange faces significant prison time for his alleged crimes.
Assange’s extradition trial is set to begin on February 24. It will last a week, followed by a delay that will push the remaining three weeks of the trial to May 18.
Revelations from Assange’s lawyers
Just days before the trial is set to begin, Assange’s lawyers claimed in the Westminster magistrates court that Trump offered to pardon Assange for his crimes if he covered up Russia’s connection to the hacking of the DNC emails.
The pardon deal was allegedly brought by Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher when he visited Assange in the embassy in August 2017, several months after Trump had won the presidency.
Those emails, which compromised Trump’s rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, received substantial media coverage. It was argued that the release of the emails helped Trump win the election and weather the storm related to the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.
Within an hour of the Washington Post releasing a video of Trump talking in crude terms about forcing himself on women, WikiLeaks released a trove of DNC-related emails.
Rohrabacher denied making an offer on behalf of Trump, but the former California congressman has previously been accused of illegally working to advance Russia’s goals.
Rohrabacher, who lost reelection to the House of Representatives in 2018, had been called “Russia’s favorite congressman” for defending Russian actions on multiple occasions, including its 2014 annexation of Crimea. He is also a strong Trump ally.
WikiLeaks’ Trump/Russia connection
The alleged offer to Assange occurred in the midst of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump and his ties to Russia, which concluded with the release of the Mueller Report in March 2019.
Mueller and his team determined there was insufficient evidence to prove conspiracy between Trump’s team and Russia, but Mueller also said the president was not exonerated of crimes.
The Mueller investigation led to charges against 12 Russian intelligence officers for their role in hacking the DNC.
The Mueller investigation also found links between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign, including revelations that Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., had repeated contact with WikiLeaks during the election, and that the Trump campaign was aware of email leaks before they happened. It was also discovered that in 2015 Assange had said, “It would be much better for GOP to win” than Clinton.
Additionally, Roger Stone, a former member of Trump’s campaign team, and a close associate of the president, was recently convicted of lying under oath about his connections to WikiLeaks and for obstructing an investigation into Russian interference.
Trump’s public insistence that Stone’s sentence was too severe, and the Justice Department’s subsequent reduction of the sentence, received considerable criticism.
WikiLeaks’ connection to Russia predates the 2016 election. In 2012, Assange hosted a TV show on the country’s state-run network, Russia Today (RT).
Trump’s denial of Russian interference
In a September 2016 debate with Clinton, Trump said no one knew who hacked the DNC, and that it could have been China or “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
Despite the US intelligence community being in agreement about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Trump sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a 2018 joint press conference in Helsinki. In response to a question about Russia’s influence in the election, Trump said, “President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
Members of the House were warned last week that Russia is working to interfere in the 2020 election as well, reports the New York Times. Russia has also been implicated for interfering in other national elections, including ones in Spain and the UK.