On December 16th, Julian Assange or one of his assistants reached out to Donald Trump Jr. by direct message on Twitter and asked him to make a request of his father, who was then the president-elect. They knew that Australia wouldn’t go along with it, but could Trump Sr. please suggest that Assange be appointed as the ambassador to the United States? This would send a message to Sweden, Australia and the U.K. to back off their legal cases.
As far as I can tell, this is the only communication WikiLeaks had with Donald Trump Jr. that didn’t directly promote Russia’s interests.
Let’s look at the first communication made via Twitter:
Just before the stroke of midnight on September 20, 2016, at the height of last year’s presidential election, the WikiLeaks Twitter account sent a private direct message to Donald Trump Jr., the Republican nominee’s oldest son and campaign surrogate. “A PAC run anti-Trump site putintrump.org is about to launch,” WikiLeaks wrote. “The PAC is a recycled pro-Iraq war PAC. We have guessed the password. It is ‘putintrump.’ See ‘About’ for who is behind it. Any comments?”
There are a host of issues raised by this communication, including legal questions about what laws may have been broken and by whom. But what stands out to me is that WikiLeaks was interested in something that linked Trump to Putin in a negative way. This was the subject that motivated them to make contact, and Donald Trump Jr. was the one who they thought would be the best person to arm with a stolen password.
The next communication came about a month later during the endgame of the campaign. In one sense, WikiLeaks was trolling for a scoop. They wanted to help neutralize a potential October Surprise by getting their hands on Trump’s tax returns themselves before they could be released by an unfriendly source. But, on closer inspection, they primarily wanted the tax returns because it would rectify their reputation for pro-Trump bias and give more weight to the DNC and Podesta-hacked leaks they had been publishing on a rolling basis. Since Russia had procured the emails, this was clearly in Russia’s interest.
“Hey Don. We have an unusual idea,” WikiLeaks wrote on October 21, 2016. “Leak us one or more of your father’s tax returns.” WikiLeaks then laid out three reasons why this would benefit both the Trumps and WikiLeaks. One, The New York Times had already published a fragment of Trump’s tax returns on October 1; two, the rest could come out any time “through the most biased source (e.g. NYT/MSNBC).”
It is the third reason, though, WikiLeaks wrote, that “is the real kicker.” “If we publish them it will dramatically improve the perception of our impartiality,” WikiLeaks explained. “That means that the vast amount of stuff that we are publishing on Clinton will have much higher impact, because it won’t be perceived as coming from a ‘pro-Trump’ ‘pro-Russia’ source.”
The Election Day communication also followed this pattern. WikiLeaks is ostensibly a radical transparency organization, not a disinformation center. So, why would they want want to encourage Donald Trump to pursue a campaign to delegitimize the results of an American election based on no facts? This was Russia’s goal, obviously, but there’s no reason it should have been a goal for WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks didn’t write again until Election Day, November 8, 2016. “Hi Don if your father ‘loses’ we think it is much more interesting if he DOES NOT conceed [sic] and spends time CHALLENGING the media and other types of rigging that occurred—as he has implied that he might do,” WikiLeaks wrote at 6:35pm, when the idea that Clinton would win was still the prevailing conventional wisdom. (As late as 7:00pm that night, FiveThirtyEight, a trusted prognosticator of the election, gave Clinton a 71 percent chance of winning the presidency.) WikiLeaks insisted that contesting the election results would be good for Trump’s rumored plans to start a media network should he lose the presidency. “The discussion can be transformative as it exposes media corruption, primary corruption, PAC corruption, etc.,” WikiLeaks wrote.
The next major communication WikiLeaks had with Donald Trump Jr. came when news broke that he’d had a secret, undisclosed meeting in Trump Tower with a Russian agent who was peddling dirt on Hillary Clinton. WikiLeaks reached out with a plan to help him clean up the mess.
In the winter and spring, WikiLeaks went largely silent, only occasionally sending Trump Jr. links. But on July 11, 2017, three days after The New York Times broke the story about Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with connections to Russia’s powerful prosecutor general, WikiLeaks got in touch again.
“Hi Don. Sorry to hear about your problems,” WikiLeaks wrote. “We have an idea that may help a little. We are VERY interested in confidentially obtaining and publishing a copy of the email(s) cited in the New York Times today,” citing a reference in the paper to emails Trump Jr had exchanged with Rob Goldstone, a publicist who had helped set up the meeting. “We think this is strongly in your interest,” WikiLeaks went on. It then reprised many of the same arguments it made in trying to convince Trump Jr. to turn over his father’s tax returns, including the argument that Trump’s enemies in the press were using the emails to spin an unfavorable narrative of the meeting. “Us publishing not only deprives them of this ability but is beautifully confounding.”
Once again, the desire to confuse people about WikiLeaks’ true motives and allegiances is front and center here. They know it will “beautifully” confound people if it looks like Wikileaks is doing something to hurt Trump. In the end, Donald Jr. published the emails himself.
The very existence of this correspondence contradicts more than a year of denials from the Trump camp that they were in any kind of direct communication with WikiLeaks, or that they coordinated the release and distribution of the hacked emails. A lot of people are focused on those lies, and understandably so.
But it’s the naked way that WikiLeaks was acting as a Kremlin front that I think is the most important news here. There’s an implied understanding in these messages between the two parties. There’s no sense of caution on the WikiLeaks end that they might be presumptuous about Donald Jr.’s willingness to push the Kremlin line or that Donald Sr. might be offended by the suggestion that he delegitimize the election for Russia’s benefit even though it would clearly hurt his own country. There’s a conspiracists’ bond between them as they discuss the desirability of throwing people off their scent by working together to leak damaging information in a preemptive way (the classic “limited hangout.”)
A limited hangout or partial hangout is, according to former special assistant to the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Victor Marchetti, “spy jargon for a favorite and frequently used gimmick of the clandestine professionals. When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phony cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting—sometimes even volunteering—some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case. The public, however, is usually so intrigued by the new information that it never thinks to pursue the matter further.”
Admittedly, there’s no direct admission in these communications that the leaked emails were obtained by Russian hackers, nor do they come right out and say that they’re discussing a Russian agenda. But, collectively, these messages are incredibly strong evidence of Wikileaks being a Russian front organization, or at least that they have been so strongly coopted that they might as well be run from Moscow.
The evidence of Russian hacking has been coming in from other sources, including George Papadopoulos, who was informed that Russia had obtained hacked material long before any of it was actually released. What remained a question was whether Wikileaks was a witting or unwitting participant in Russia’s game. In my opinion, these Twitter messages remove any doubt about that. Wikileaks was acting in a way that was completely indistinguishable from how a Russian intelligence agency would act. And they weren’t making any effort to disguise this from the Trump campaign.
This completes the case, in a sense, because it not only connects the dots between Russia and Wikileaks, but it makes clear that the Trump campaign knew how closely the two were working together. The only remaining defense relies on the stupidity and naivety of the Trump team, but they’ve been caught in so many lies now that it will be hard for them to be believed if they try to argue that they just didn’t know who they were dealing with.