Since 2012, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has lived in Ecuador’s embassy in London. The country granted him political asylum to help him avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was wanted for questioning about alleged sex crimes. The investigation was shelved in 2017, but he still faced arrest for violating the terms of his bail in the United Kingdom. If he leaves the embassy, he could be arrested. So he doesn’t leave the embassy.
That means that those seeking a face-to-face conversation with Assange are fairly limited in options for doing so. Assange receives visitors on occasion, such as actress Pamela Anderson (who was incorrectly rumored to have been dating him) and Brexit proponent Nigel Farage. But, generally speaking, shaking Assange’s hand is not a trivial task.
This makes a new revelation from the Wall Street Journal somewhat trickier to deconstruct. On Monday, the paper reported that Roger Stone, longtime ally and adviser to President Trump, told a colleague in an email in August 2016 that he’d had dinner with Assange the previous night. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team has reportedly asked at least one witness about the email in front of a grand jury.
It adds a new wrinkle to long-standing questions about Stone’s relationship with Assange. The Washington Post reported last month that Stone had told an associate in the spring of 2016 that he’d been in contact with Assange and learned that WikiLeaks possessed emails that would be problematic for Democrats. That report also revealed that he’d told another former Trump aide, Sam Nunberg, about having had dinner with Assange. That claim, Stone told The Post, was “a throwaway line” to get Nunberg “off the phone.”
The Journal report says that Stone emailed the same claim to Nunberg on Aug. 4. (If Nunberg’s name sounds familiar, it’s thanks to his star turn last month before his appearance before Mueller’s grand jury.)
That Aug. 4 timing is interesting. We compiled a timeline of Stone’s claims last month that puts it into context.
- Spring 2016. Stone tells an associate he has spoken with Assange.
- March 28, 2016. Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email account is compromised.
- June 12, 2016. Assange says on a British television program that his organization is in possession of emails belonging to Hillary Clinton.
- June 15, 2016. A person calling himself “Guccifer 2.0” releases information stolen from the Democratic National Committee.
- July 22, 2016. WikiLeaks begins releasing files stolen from the DNC.
- Aug. 4, 2016. Stone emails Nunberg and tells him he’d dined with Assange on Aug. 3.
- Aug. 5, 2016. An essay by Stone blaming the WikiLeaks release on Guccifer 2.0 runs at Breitbart.
- Aug. 8, 2016. Stone tells a Republican group that he has been in contact with Assange, who he says plans to release information about the Clinton Foundation.
- Aug. 9, 2016. WikiLeaks denies meeting Stone directly. In private, it referred to him as a casual liar using a vulgar term.
- Aug. 14, 2016. Guccifer 2.0, who was revealed last month to be a Russian intelligence officer, contacts Stone over Twitter’s direct-messaging system. Their conversation is generally vague, according to transcripts published by Stone.
- Aug. 18, 2016. On C-SPAN, Stone claims, “I have not spoken to Mr. Assange. I have not met with Mr. Assange. And I never said I had.”
- Aug. 21, 2016. Stone hints that it will soon be “Podesta’s time in the barrel.” (He told the Journal on Monday that he was referring to lobbying questions involving Podesta’s brother.)
- Early October. Stone tweets a number of references to an upcoming release by WikiLeaks.
- Oct. 7. WikiLeaks begins publishing Podesta’s stolen emails.
- Oct. 12. After having had his predictions come true, Stone said that he and Assange have a mutual friend who was tipping him off.
- Oct. 13. WikiLeaks (probably meaning Assange) chastises him over Twitter direct message for claiming a relationship.
Obviously, were Stone in regular contact with Assange and WikiLeaks during the campaign, it would raise significant questions about the extent to which people closely connected to Trump (which Stone was and is) were aware of what WikiLeaks had. Or, more broadly, it might help answer the lingering question surrounding the release of the material by WikiLeaks: How, if it was stolen by Russian intelligence agents as the U.S. government believes, did it end up in the hands of Assange?
But the problem is that it’s hard to believe Stone actually dined with Assange.
It’s not impossible that someone could sneak into the Ecuadoran Embassy. When Farage visited in March 2017, he was revealed to have done so only because someone walking by recognized him as he entered. That made its way to the press. In his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee last year, Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson alleged that Farage might have visited Assange on other occasions, perhaps even passing him data on a USB drive. Simpson didn’t identify the source for that information, but his firm employed former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, author of the infamous Trump dossier of reports. (Farage denies the allegation.)
Stone would be less likely to be recognized while walking in London than Farage — but it would be a lot more difficult for him to get there from New York. When he visited London earlier this year, he stopped by the embassy, leaving his business card, as he told the Daily Beast. He claimed at that time that he didn’t intend to meet Assange but simply went on a lark — and that Assange might not even have been there, having been “extracted” at some point prior. Was Stone hinting that he knew that Assange had freer rein in London than the WikiLeaks founder would like British authorities to believe?
Or was Stone full of it?
Stone has a carefully cultivated reputation as a “political trickster,” which is a polite way of saying “mudslinger and exaggerator,” which is a polite way of saying “guy who will say untrue things if it advances his agenda.” One of his agendas is his own reputation, and during 2016, he clearly believed that it paid to imply a close relationship with Assange. That was manifested in his public assertions about knowing what WikiLeaks was up to but also apparently in his private conversations with Nunberg and that unidentified aide in the spring of that election year.
This is very Trumpian, really. Remember how earnestly Trump sought to foster the idea that he had a friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin until a relationship with Putin became a distinct liability. Trump claimed that he and Putin had a relationship because they’d both been interviewed on the same “60 Minutes” program, never mind that Putin’s interview was in Russia. For Trump, it was a way of puffing up his importance. And then people started wondering why he dealt with Russia with such a soft touch, at which point he insisted that he’d never met the guy. (It is likely that he actually hadn’t.)
The Journal report highlights two key questions, for which we can take a stab at answers.
- Did Stone dine with Assange? It’s hard to see how he could have traveled to London and met with Assange at the Ecuadoran Embassy without it becoming public before now — or that Assange would slip out of the embassy, risking arrest, to have dinner with him.
- Did Stone have a direct relationship with Assange at all? Even if we think of “having dinner” as a broad way of describing a conversation, this seems unlikely. Stone claimed a relationship with Assange in situations where it might presumably have helped improve his personal standing — talking to Nunberg, talking to a Republican group, talking on Twitter. But in private conversation that neither party had any reason to believe would become public, neither WikiLeaks nor Stone indicated knowing each other. WikiLeaks even dismissed knowing him in a private chat room to which only WikiLeaks participants were privy — only days after the alleged “dinner.”
But for the conspiratorially minded, there are always loopholes. Maybe he did sneak into the embassy! Maybe Assange did sneak out! Maybe those denials were intentional! And so on.
Or, if you really want to dive into the rabbit hole, consider Farage, who may have given Assange some data at some unidentified point in time. Farage did meet Trump during the campaign — even sharing the stage at a rally with him in the same month as Stone’s alleged dinner. Who put Farage in contact with Trump?
Stone gave Mother Jones an answer to that question in June: Why, it was him, Roger Stone!
Farage denies this, too.