Politics

Trump offered WikiLeaks' Julian Assange a pardon if he covered up Russian hacking of Democrats, lawyer tells court

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump offered a pardon to Julian Assange if the WikiLeaks chief agreed to say that Russia had nothing to do with hacking emails from Democrats during the 2016 presidential election, Assange's lawyer said.
  • The claim was made at a court hearing in London, where U.S. officials have asked for Assange to be extradited to the U.S. to face multiple criminal charges.
  • Russian agents hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and the campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Those emails later were made public by WikiLeaks.
  • White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham called the claim by Assange's lawyer "a complete fabrication and a total lie." She also said Trump "barely knows Dana Rohrabacher," who reportedly was the intermediary.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at court in London on May 1, 2019 to be sentenced for bail violation.
Daniel Leal-Olivas | AFP | Getty Images

President Donald Trump offered a pardon through an intermediary to Julian Assange if the WikiLeaks chief agreed to say that Russia was not involved in hacking emails from Democrats during the 2016 presidential election, a lawyer for Assange reportedly told a court in London on Wednesday.

Assange's lawyer Edward Fitzgerald made that claim during a hearing related to the U.S. request to extradite Assange from the United Kingdom to face more than a dozen criminal charges in the United States, according to The Daily Beast news site.

Fitzgerald referred in that hearing to a statement from Jennifer Robinson, another lawyer for Assange, saying that then-Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., told Assange that, "on instructions from the president, he was offering a pardon or some other way out, if Mr. Assange ... said Russia had nothing to do with the DNC [Democratic National Committee] leaks," The Daily Beast reported.

Rohrabacher, whose pro-Russia stance led to him being derisively nicknamed Vladimir "Putin's favorite congressman," allegedly made that claim during a visit in the summer of 2017 to Assange at Ecuador's embassy in London.

At the time, Rohrabacher told The Hill that, "Our three-hour meeting covered a wide array of issues, including the WikiLeaks exposure of the DNC [Democratic National Committee] emails during last year's presidential election."

"Julian emphatically stated that the Russians were not involved in the hacking or disclosure of those emails," Rohrabacher told The Hill at the time.

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces conspiracy charges in United States after arrest in London

The congressman also said at the time that he had information to share privately with Trump.

In a statement posted to his website Wednesday, Rohrabacher said he didn't offer a deal on Trump's behalf.

"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," the former congressman said. "At no time did I offer a deal made by the President, nor did I say I was representing the President."

Yet Rohrabacher also said he met with then-White House chief of staff John Kelly and told him that Assange would provide information about the DNC hack in exchange for a pardon, but said no one from the White House followed up with him on the offer.

In his statement, Rohrabacher also called on Trump to pardon Assange, whom he called "the true whistleblower of our time."

Neither CNBC nor NBC News has the full statement made by Assange's lawyer in court.

The formal extradition hearing for Assange, an Australian national, is due to begin Monday. At Wednesday's court session, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser reportedly said the evidence about a purported pardon offer is admissible at that hearing.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, when asked about the claim of a pardon offer by Trump, said, "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," Grisham said. "This is probably another never ending hoax and total lie from the DNC."

Trump in a November 2018 tweet called Rohrabacher "a great Congressman for his district," who "works hard and is respected by all."

WikiLeaks, in two tweets after Wednesday's hearing, seemed to confirm that a presidential pardon had been offered to Assange, but also said that the offer came 10 months "after Julian Assange had already independently stated that Russia was not the source of the DNC publication."

WikiLeaks also said "the meeting and the offer were made prior to Assange's indictment."

Rohrabacher did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the claims made by Assange's lawyers.

Assange's attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Justice Department has said that Russian agents hacked emails from the DNC and from John Podesta, the campaign chairman for 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, in 2016.

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Trump: 'I know nothing about WikiLeaks'

Those emails later were released during the campaign by WikiLeaks, which specializes in publicizing classified and otherwise secret documents.

The emails were seen as damaging to Clinton's candidacy.

Former FBI director Robert Mueller, who as special counsel investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election, in his report on the probe last year said that members of Trump's campaign had a series of contacts with WikiLeaks and people related to its operation about the Clinton campaign emails.

Trump told Mueller in written responses to questions that he "did not recall being aware" of any communications between WikiLeaks and his campaign.

Republican operative Roger Stone, a friend and former advisor of Trump's, is due to be sentenced Thursday in federal court in Washington, D.C., for charges that relate to his lying to Congress about his contacts with WikiLeaks during the 2016 election.

Assange, who is a co-founder of WikiLeaks, was charged last May by U.S. authorities with conspiring with former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to obtain and publish secret documents, some of which included the disclosure of identities of foreigners who were aiding the U.S. military abroad.

Assange is currently in British custody after having been expelled from Ecuador's embassy in London, where he had lived for nearly seven years. Federal authorities want Assange to be extradited to the U.S. in order to face charges.

Assange had first sought asylum at the Ecuadorean embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was accused of sexual assault.

But he remained in the embassy for years, in part due to fears that he could be arrested at the behest of American authorities for his work obtaining and publishing classified documents.