WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at the Westminster Magistrate's Court after he was arrested in London, the UK, April 11 2019. Picture: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange arrives at the Westminster Magistrate's Court after he was arrested in London, the UK, April 11 2019. Picture: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY

Washington — Donald Trump made no secret during the 2016 campaign that he appreciated WikiLeaks and founder Julian Assange for publishing thousands of hacked Democratic e-mails, many of them damaging to Hillary Clinton.

“I love WikiLeaks,’’ he said more than once as the group posted e-mails stolen by Russian operatives from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s Gmail account.

Once Trump won the presidency, though, the praise gave way to condemnation by top administration officials. His CIA director branded WikiLeaks “a nonstate hostile intelligence service,” and his attorney-general vowed to see Assange arrested.

By Thursday, that turnabout was complete as Assange was expelled from his long-time hideout in Ecuador’s embassy in London in response to a US extradition request and a criminal indictment.  Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, “I know nothing about WikiLeaks — it’s not my thing.”

That belies the praise he showered on the organisation during his presidential campaign, as well as efforts by supporters to encourage its leaks of stolen Democratic documents — which often came at key moments, such as just before the Democratic National Convention and just after the Washington Post released a 2005 audiotape of Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women.

“WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks,” Trump said on October 10 2016, a few days after it began posting Podesta’s e-mails.

“I have learned so much from WikiLeaks,” he told Fox News’s Bret Baier later that month. In the weeks leading up to the election, he called the e-mails it posted “incredible”, “amazing” and a “treasure trove”.

People close to Trump communicated with WikiLeaks in hopes of better weaponising the hacked materials the group had obtained.

Donald Trump Jr has acknowledged exchanging several private Twitter messages with WikiLeaks in September 2016, weeks before the organisation published hacked e-mails from the Clinton campaign, which would generate headlines that haunted the Democrat’s campaign through election day. In the messages, he mostly answered contacts from WikiLeaks politely or not at all, though he did not reject communications with the website.

Mueller’s probe

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia interference in the 2016 campaign touched repeatedly on the role of WikiLeaks and Assange. Federal prosecutors could press him to reveal more about his involvement in the 2016 campaign if he is eventually extradited to stand trial.

Trump campaign officials directed a Trump ally, Roger Stone, to contact WikiLeaks during the period when the activist website was publishing the e-mails, which embarrassed top Democratic officials, including Clinton, according to an indictment against Stone.

Stone’s deadline for filing motions in court to dismiss the charges is Friday. One of his lawyers, Grant Smith, would not say Thursday which his arguments will make mention of Assange, or the latest developments surrounding him. “Stay tuned,” Smith said in an e-mail.

Former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified that he overheard a phone call in which Stone gave Trump advance word that WikiLeaks would soon release hacked Democratic e-mails. Stone has pleaded not guilty and has denied that he worked with WikiLeaks.

Others working for Trump also embraced Assange. A poster of Assange reading “Dear Hillary, I miss reading your classified e-mails” hung in the Trump campaign’s workspace at the third presidential debate in 2016.

Approving Tweets

As Trump prepared for his inauguration, the president-elect tweeted approvingly about Assange’s criticism of the US media and of his comments about Podesta falling for a password phishing attempt.

“Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ — why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!” Trump wrote on January 4 2017. The next day, he tweeted: “The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange — wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people.”

But by last November the president was telling reporters, “I don’t know anything about him. Really, I don’t know much about him. I really don’t.”

Chelsea Manning

The US charges disclosed on Thursday against Assange deal solely with his helping former US army analyst Chelsea Manning hack into classified government files. In 2010, after WikiLeaks published documents provided by Manning, then known as Bradley Manning, Trump said the group deserved to be punished. “I think it’s disgraceful, I think there should be like death penalty or something,” Trump told Fox News host Brian Kilmeade on his radio show. In his Oval Office remarks on Thursday, Trump was asked if he still loves WikiLeaks.

“I know there was something having to do with Julian Assange,” Trump said, in an apparent reference to Assange’s arrest and the US extradition request. “I’ve been seeing what’s happening with Assange. That will be a determination, I would imagine, mostly by the attorney-general, who’s doing an excellent job. So he’ll be making a determination.”

“I know nothing really about it — it’s not my deal in life,” Trump said.