On Tuesday, the Guardian published an apparent bombshell: allegations that Paul Manafort – Donald Trump’s convention manager and one-time campaign chairman – had met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on multiple occasions in Ecuador’s London embassy.
The news would, if confirmed, show yet another tie between WikiLeaks and Donald Trump’s team – a matter of huge media and prosecutorial interest following the former’s publication of hacked emails from John Podesta (a key Clinton aide) and the Democratic National Committee. The leak dominated coverage for weeks of the presidential campaign which Trump won.
US special counsel Robert Mueller has published an indictment against multiple individuals and organisations, setting out evidence alleging the Russian state was behind the hacks and their distribution to WikiLeaks, meaning ties between Russia, Manafort and Wikileaks are at the heart of the probe into the US President.
The latest allegations from the Guardian have been emphatically denied by Manafort and WikiLeaks, the latter of whom hyperbolically offered “$1 million” to anyone who could prove the story was true, and launched a crowdfunding attempt to sue the newspaper.
So what’s really going on?
WikiLeaks and Trump
The Guardian’s story initially cited “two sources” and a document from SENAIN, Ecuador’s intelligence agency. After Wikileaks’ robust response the Guardian updated the story to remove the specific reference to “two” sources, and weakening the language used to refer to the meetings.
WikiLeaks has spoken untruthfully in public statements on multiple occasions, and has often threatened to sue media outlets without ever following through. Difficulties in testifying, turning over discovery evidence, demonstrating they would comply with an unfavourable judgment and more stand in their way. Meanwhile Manafort was cited earlier this month by Mueller’s team for being untruthful with them.
Their denials are emphatic and The Guardian did weaken its story following them. SENAIN, who like Ecuador’s government have markedly cooled on Assange over his six-year stay, has also leaked against him before. But neither he nor Manafort are reliable narrators.
In that context, most would be tempted to give The Guardian the benefit of the doubt, but few would say the story is conclusively proven either way.
But there are more proven ties between WikiLeaks and the Trump team.
Republican operative Roger Stone has long boasted of a “backchannel” into WikiLeaks, alleged in court filings to be his associate Jerome Corsi, who Stone repeatedly asked to get in touch with Assange during the leaks in 2016, according to CNN reporting. Stone has since fervently backtracked, claiming now to have no special contact with Assange.
There has also been sustained speculation about a visit Nigel Farage – who has met Trump and many of his team – apparently made to Julian Assange, after Farage was photographed leaving the Ecuadorian embassy. Little is known about the substance of the meeting, with suggested explanations ranging from Farage simply trying to line up an interview for radio station LBC, to the former Ukip leader serving as a messenger between Assange and Trump (he denies this).
One Trump associate who definitely did communicate with Assange, however, is Donald Trump Jr – who repeatedly messaged via Twitter the WikiLeaks account (usually run personally by Assange). The full correspondence was published by Trump Jr himself, revealing WikiLeaks discussing their leaks, suggesting the Trump campaign leak tax returns to look “impartial”, and even that Trump should suggest Assange be appointed as an ambassador.
The extent of the links between WikiLeaks and the Trump camp might be in dispute, but the overall fact of their existence is not.
WikiLeaks and Russia
There is solid public domain evidence, as well as assessments from multiple intelligence agencies, that the Russian state was behind the email hacks which blighted the Clinton campaign in 2016 – and which were published by WikiLeaks. This is corroborated in Mueller’s indictment of the hackers, which refers to (though not by name) WikiLeaks and Stone.
This has led some to jump to conclusions and say WikiLeaks was a knowing collaborator with the Russian state. This is an overreach, and a possible misunderstanding of Assange’s character. Speaking as someone who briefly lived and worked with him. Assange’s ego is famously sizeable, and he considers himself a player on the world stage in his own right: he would not naturally be happy doing anyone’s gruntwork.
There is a considerable difference between Assange not asking too many inconvenient questions about material offered by anonymous hackers to be used against a woman he hates, Hillary Clinton, and Assange being ordered by Russian handlers to publish information in a calculated way.
Absent solid evidence, we should assume the former, rather than the latter.
That is not to say Assange has no sympathy with Russia, nor no connection to it. Assange had a show on Russia Today for one season, through which he met Ecuador’s then-president who later granted him political asylum.
Still further, one of Assange’s close associates in 2010 was a man called Israel Shamir, a major defender of the Kremlin and Putin, who according to documents published by Associated Press attempted to obtain a Russian visa for Assange in 2010.
None of the public evidence comes anywhere close to suggesting Assange is a deliberate agent for the Russian state, but it is evident he is at the least an asset: you don’t have to be knowingly conspiring with a state to be useful to it, and Assange has certainly proven useful to Russia.
The same can be said for Assange and Trump: the sustained publication of the Podesta and DNC emails, and their deliberate timing, helped Trump a great deal.
The question that remains is how much of that was convenience, and how much was deliberate conspiracy. On the latter, we are still in the dark.