President Trump on Thursday claimed ignorance about the criminal case against WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, but that case is a major political hazard for Trump, who is newly vulnerable to disclosures and innuendo in an anticipated campaign to halt the prosecution.
Trump once celebrated Assange’s handiwork against Hillary Clinton but now risks a similarly brutal assault that could call into question special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent report exonerating Trump of colluding with Russia in 2016.
Assange, a central figure of intrigue in Mueller’s just-closed investigation, was dragged from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London urging resistance to the Trump administration as he fights a single criminal charge dating to Chelsea Manning’s 2010 leaks.
National security defense attorney Mark Zaid said he expects Assange to “graymail” the U.S. government, meaning threatening to deploy secrets as a criminal defense, in an effort to avoid charges. Graymail can be done through legal filings or out in the open.
“I would expect, from a legal strategy standpoint, that Assange will do anything he can to persuade the U.S. government to drop these charges,” Zaid said. “That would be to pursue a line of information that would actually link the president to WikiLeaks.”
Zaid said “it doesn’t have to be true” and that Assange could essentially bluff as he faces what’s likely to be a protracted extradition fight.
“It could be completely true that Assange had nothing to do with Russia and the 2016 election but he pursues a legal strategy along the lines that he did, for the purposes of trying to graymail the government into dropping the charges,” Zaid said.
“It would not only not surprise me, I would expect it,” he said.
A 1980 law allows a judge to review efforts by defense attorneys to access restricted records for criminal defense efforts. Zaid said that Assange could seek information from Mueller’s investigation, arguing that he’s actually being targeted because of his starring role in the 2016 election, rather than for a near-decade-old leak of military and diplomatic secrets.
Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen told Congress in February that Trump “knew” that Roger Stone “was talking with Julian Assange about a WikiLeaks drop of Democratic National Committee emails.” Cohen said that Stone told Trump over speaker phone in July 2016 that “he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange” and that Assange told him that “within a couple days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
Trump allegedly responded to Cohen, “wouldn’t that be great.”
Assange’s possible contact with author Jerome Corsi also was probed by Mueller after Corsi said he “predicted” in July 2016 that WikiLeaks had Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails and would release them in October, something Mueller’s team found implausible.
Stone is fighting charges that he lied about his pursuit of hacked emails and about witness tampering. Corsi, who had been in contact with Stone, was not charged after he flouted a plea deal from Mueller for allegedly lying about wanting to contact Assange.
Corsi, who is best known for questioning President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, said he doesn’t believe Assange will threaten to harm Trump.
Instead, Corsi said he expects Attorney General William Barr to offer Assange immunity in exchange for proving Russia did not hack the emails, a deal that former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher tried and failed to broker in 2016 after meeting with Assange. Rohrabacher’s attempts to meet with Trump were blocked by then-White House chief of staff John Kelly.
“My read on Assange, and I’ve studied him for the past 12 years now, is Assange tells the truth, just like I would. He won’t lie to save himself,” Corsi said. “I’ve been pretty accurate predicting Assange so far.”
Though “graymail” is possible, whistleblower defense attorney Jesselyn Radack, whose clients include NSA whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Thomas Drake, said she’s unconvinced Assange holds damaging information specifically about Trump.
“I have to imagine that WikiLeaks has some sort of dead man’s switch in place for a circumstance like this,” Radack said. “But if they have kompromat on Trump, I think it would have already come out.”