Just a year ago, they might have seemed the oddest of couples, but now US president-elect Donald Trump and WikiLeaks frontman Julian Assange have formed a united front against the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russian intelligence used hacked e-mails to interfere in the US presidential election.
Assange, long reviled by many Republicans as an anarchist lawbreaker out to damage the US, has won new respect from conservatives who appreciated his site’s release of Democratic e-mails widely perceived to have hurt former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign. And Trump has been eager to undercut the conclusion of the FBI, CIA and other agencies that those e-mails were provided to WikiLeaks courtesy of Russian government hackers.
In a lengthy interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News that aired on Tuesday last week, Assange repeated earlier denials that WikiLeaks had received the hacked e-mails from Russian intelligence.
“Our source is not the Russian government,” Assange said. “And it is not a state party.”
Trump picked up on Assange’s claim on Twitter on Wednesday morning, referring to the main targets of the hacking, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta: “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!”
But Assange has said in the past that, on principle, WikiLeaks does not try to investigate the provider of leaked documents and sometimes does not know a source’s identity.
In this case, it is highly unlikely that anyone approaching WikiLeaks with the e-mails obtained by Russian government hacking would acknowledge the source, so it appears that Assange cannot be sure of the ultimate origin of the e-mails.
Nor did Assange mention two mysterious internet sites that, like WikiLeaks, also distributed the hacked e-mails. US officials believe those sites, DCLeaks.com and a blog calling itself “Guccifer 2.0,” were created by Russian agents.
Following up on his first Twitter post, Trump also seemed to bond with Assange over their shared disdain for the media. He noted that Assange had called US media coverage “very dishonest” and added, “More dishonest than anyone knows.”
Though the celebrity businessman and the champion of leakers are both showmen sometimes derided by critics as narcissists, they might seem to have little else in common. In this instance, however, their interests may coincide.
Assange would like to counter the impression that WikiLeaks made itself a passive tool for the geopolitical machinations of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump would like to erase the impression that he got Russian help in defeating Clinton.
However, Trump’s repeated public rejection of the intelligence agencies’ conclusion on the election-related hacking has raised the stakes for a briefing on the matter he is to receive on Friday in New York from FBI Director James Comey, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
On Tuesday night, Trump suggested in a sarcastic Twitter post that the briefing had been postponed.
“The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!” Trump tweeted.
Officials said the briefing had not been postponed, but more remarkable than the possible miscommunication over timing was Trump’s placing “intelligence” in mocking quotation marks, amplifying his previous insults to the quality of the agencies’ work.