In Depth

Did Donald Trump offer Julian Assange a pardon deal?

Former Republican congressman denies acting as middleman for US president

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has claimed Donald Trump offered him a pardon in exchange for denying that Russia was involved in the leak of Democratic Party emails in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

In 2018, following an investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Russian intelligence operatives were blamed for the hack, which revealed embarrassing messages between Democratic National Committee (DNC) officials about the Hillary Clinton presidental campaign.

But Assange’s lawyers are now alleging that then Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher visited him in 2017 to say that “on instructions from the president, he was offering a pardon or some other way out” if the WikiLeaks boss publically denied Kremlin involvement.

Both Rohrabacher and the White House deny the allegation. 

Why was the hack significant?

In 2016, a massive collection of DNC emails were stolen by one or more hackers operating under the pseudonym Guccifer 2.0. The emails were passed on to WikiLeaks, which initially published around 20,000 of the messages on the controversial website that July.

The emails included correspondence between senior officials in the Democratic Party’s governing body that revealed bias towards then-presidential candidate nominee Hillary Clinton, at the expense of her rival Bernie Sanders. A second batch of incriminating emails were released by WikiLeaks in November the same year.

As tech news site The Register notes, the emails “were credited with helping to turn public opinion in key US states” against Clinton and are believed to have “allowed Trump to claim an upset victory in the presidential election”.

Following a lengthy investigation, in 2018 the US Department of Justice charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with hacking Democratic officials, as part of an alleged bid to interfere with the presidential election outcome.

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What does Assange allege?

After claiming sanctuary and living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for seven years, Assange was arrested by the Metropolitan Police last year, and now faces extradition to the US, where he currently faces 18 charges.

These charges include conspiring to commit computer intrusion, over the publication of US cables a decade ago.

This week, ahead of his extradition hearing, Assange appeared at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where his lawyer Edward Fitzgerald claimed that former congressman Rohrabacher had spoken to Assange at the embassy in August 2017 on behalf of Trump.

According to Fitzgerald, the Republican politician offered to arrange a presidential pardon if Assange would “play ball” by publicly stating the Russians were not involved in the DNC hack.

Rohrabacher has previously admitted to speaking to Assange at the embassy, but in a statement released on Wednesday, stated that he has never spoken to the US president about the WikiLeaks founder and that the visit was his own “fact-finding mission”.

“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,” he said. “At no time did I offer a deal made by the president, nor did I say I was representing the president.”

The White House has called the pardon deal claim “a complete fabrication and a total lie”, the BBC reports. 

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham 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.”

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