A story from the Guardian on Tuesday attempts to draw a line between two of the largest dots in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and overlap with President Trump’s campaign. It’s not clear, though, what that line would represent.
According to the newspaper, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange and Paul Manafort met in London prior to Manafort joining Trump’s team as campaign chairman. While the report is vague in its details and is unconfirmed, if it’s true, it would mark the first direct contact between someone close to the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks — significant primarily because of WikiLeaks’s role in distributing information allegedly stolen by Russian intelligence agents from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.
On Twitter, WikiLeaks firmly denied any contact with Manafort.
If a meeting did occur, it's not clear how important it might have been. The critical question, if such a meeting took place, is the extent to which Manafort and Assange discussed the 2016 campaign, if at all. To that end, it's important to consider the timeline of what's known about Manafort's connection to the campaign and Assange's access to the stolen material to determine the extent to which abetting Trump's candidacy might have been a subject of conversation.
The primary document that outlines Assange’s role in the hacking is the indictment obtained by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III against a group of alleged Russian intelligence officers who allegedly accessed the DNC network and hacked Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Here’s how we understand the timelines of Manafort, Assange and the Russians to overlap. (This timeline includes information from past timelines we’ve compiled.)
2013: Manafort and Assange meet in London, according to the Guardian. At the time, Manafort’s clients included the president of Ukraine and his political party. Former president Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was ousted from office in 2014 during protests against his government. Putin helped Yanukovych escape to Russia, where he’s lived ever since.
2015: Manafort and Assange meet in London again, the Guardian reports. Assange has been living in the Ecuadoran Embassy in that city since 2012, making it easier to determine those with whom he’s held meetings. At least one meeting with Manafort wasn’t logged by the embassy, though, according to the Guardian.
It’s not clear when the alleged 2015 meeting occurred. Manafort didn’t join the Trump campaign until the following year, but Trump announced his candidacy that summer.
This same year, according to the indictment against the Russian intelligence officers, Russia accesses information from individuals associated with the Republican Party.
Feb. 29, 2016: Manafort makes his first outreach to Trump’s campaign, pitching himself as an outsider to D.C. after meeting with Thomas Barrack, an adviser to Trump. Trump requested a meeting with Manafort at some point afterward.
March 2016: The Guardian reports that Assange and Manafort meet in London, though the precise time of the alleged meeting is vague..
If it was in March, that timing is interesting. In the middle of the month, Russian hackers allegedly began probing the DNC network for vulnerabilities. At the end of the month, Podesta’s email is penetrated after he clicks on an email giving hackers access to his account.
March 28, 2016: As hackers believed to be working for Russian intelligence are attempting to hack other Clinton campaign staffers' emails, Manafort is hired by the Trump campaign to manage the delegate process at the convention. In addition to the connection through Barrack, Manafort is recommended by his former business partner, Roger Stone — himself a longtime adviser to Trump.
April 6, 2016: Hackers allegedly linked to Russian intelligence gain credentials for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from an unwitting employee.
April 11, 2016: Manafort emails his longtime aide Konstantin Kilimnik, based in Ukraine. Kilimnik, who was indicted by Mueller’s grand jury in June for obstruction of justice, is believed to have links to Russian intelligence. In the April 2016 email, Manafort asks Kilimnik if his longtime client Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch sanctioned by the U.S. government, is aware of media coverage of Manafort’s new position. Deripaska and Manafort had been embroiled in a business dispute for years.
"How do we use to get whole?” Manafort asks Kilimnik.
April 18, 2016: Hackers route through the DCCC to access the DNC network. They set up a domain called DCLeaks that will eventually be used to distribute hacked material. The theft of material continues for weeks.
It's important to note at this point that there is no demonstrated relationship between Assange and the hackers alleged to be working for Russian intelligence who have begun to obtain the material that WikiLeaks would ultimately release.
April 26, 2016: George Papadopoulos, an adviser to the Trump campaign, is told by a Russia-linked professor in London that the Russians have “thousands of emails” that serve as “dirt” on Clinton. Papadopoulos emails campaign staff the next day, indicating that he has “interesting messages” to share from his contacts.
June 7, 2016: Manafort and Donald Trump Jr. speak by phone multiple times as Trump Jr. is working to set up a meeting between campaign staff and a Kremlin-linked attorney who Trump Jr. believes has incriminating information about Clinton. After speaking with Manafort and his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump Jr. sets up a meeting on June 9 at 3 p.m. at Trump Tower.
June 8, 2016: DCLeaks launches, including information about Clinton and George Soros.
June 9, 2016: The Trump Tower meeting occurs. Manafort attends and takes notes.
June 12, 2016: In an interview on British television, Assange for the first time mentions having emails related to Clinton. The organization had “accumulated a large cache of information about the Democratic presidential nominee that could be used to bring an indictment against her,” according to ITV.
Assange appears to be referring to emails from Clinton’s private server, including some already publicly released.
June 14, 2016: The Washington Post reports that hackers believed to be connected to Russia have accessed the DNC network. Apparently in response, the hackers establish a persona dubbed “Guccifer 2.0” who purports to be the sole hacker involved, based in Romania.
June 20, 2016: Former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele files the first of a series of reports alleging a connection between the Trump campaign and the Russian interference effort. It alleges that Russian intelligence had a dossier of compromising material on Trump and Clinton and that Russia had been passing compromising information to the Trump campaign about his competitors.
June 22, 2016. WikiLeaks reaches out to Guccifer 2.0 to ask that the hacker(s) “[s]end any new material [stolen from the DNC] here for us to review and it will have a much higher impact than what you are doing.” This contact apparently occurs over Twitter, suggesting Assange’s involvement. With the Democratic convention looming, WikiLeaks requests information about Clinton that could be used to foster “conflict between bernie and hillary.”
July 7, 2016: Manafort contacts Kilimnik again to invite the oligarch Deripaska to get a private briefing on the campaign.
The same day, another campaign adviser named Carter Page travels to Russia to give a speech. The next day, he sends a memo to campaign staff with an overview of his travel. It reads, in part, “Russian Deputy Prime Minister and [New Economic School] Board Member Arkady Dvorkovich also spoke before the event. In a private conversation, Dvorkovich expressed strong support for Mr. Trump and a desire to work together toward devising better solutions in response to the vast range of current international problems.”
July 14, 2016: The hackers send a file to WikiLeaks with instructions on accessing the archive of DNC documents.
July 18, 2016, WikiLeaks confirms access to the DNC files. It begins publishing them on July 22, shortly before the Democratic convention.
July 19, 2016: Steele files a report alleging that Page met with senior Russian officials while in Moscow, along with a representative of the oil and gas company Rosneft. Page’s contacts with Dvorkovich are only revealed publicly in 2017.
July 27, 2016: At a news conference, Trump asks Russia to release emails he suggests may have been stolen from Clinton’s private email server. That same day, Russian hackers attempt to access the Clinton server for the first time, according to the Mueller indictment.
August 2016: In an undated report apparently filed in early August, Steele alleges that Manafort is at the center of efforts by the Trump campaign to coordinate with the Russians. It alleges “a well-developed conspiracy of cooperation between [the campaign] and the Russian leadership,” that is “managed on the TRUMP side by the Republican candidate’s campaign manager, Paul MANAFORT, who was using foreign policy advisor, Carter PAGE, and others as intermediaries.”
Aug. 3, 2016: Trump ally Stone claims in an email to have had dinner with Assange, a claim that is almost certainly untrue. It’s apparently the first time Stone claims to have had contact with the WikiLeaks leader.
Over the course of the rest of the month, Stone claims to have contact with Assange publicly and to defend Guccifer 2.0. Guccifer 2.0 and Stone exchange messages on Twitter. Those released publicly, which appear to be the entirety of the communication, don’t appear to include any information about upcoming releases.
Aug. 9, 2016: WikiLeaks publicly denies contact with Stone — and does the same in internal conversations obtained by the Intercept.
Aug. 19, 2016: Manafort is fired from the Trump campaign after reports emerge about his allegedly receiving millions of dollars in illicit funds for his work in Ukraine.
Oct. 1, 2016: Stone receives a text message from radio host Randy Credico, who interviewed Assange in August, to tell him to expect “big news Wednesday.” The next day, Stone tweets a tease about Clinton being “done” on Wednesday, including the hashtag “#WikiLeaks.”
Oct. 7, 2016: WikiLeaks begins releasing the Podesta emails. The Mueller indictment doesn’t indicate how the group obtained this material.
Oct. 20, 2016: In a report filed by Steele, he alleges that Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen has stepped in to manage the campaign’s purported relationship with Russia, including a meeting in Prague in August. An unconfirmed report from McClatchy earlier this year suggested that Mueller’s team was aware of a trip by Cohen to that city in 2016.
Cohen's trip "was in order to clean up the mess left behind by western media revelations of TRUMP ex-campaign manager MANAFORT's corrupt relationship with the former pro-Russian YANUKOVYCH regime in Ukraine," the report reads.
Nov. 8, 2016: Trump is elected president.
So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Guardian report is correct. It’s not clear that, in March 2016, Assange had any awareness of Russia’s alleged efforts to hack the DNC or Clinton campaign staffers. It seems clear, based on Mueller’s indictment, that the DNC information wasn’t in WikiLeaks’s possession until July and that the outreach from WikiLeaks in late June may have been the first contact between WikiLeaks and the Russian team.
Establishing a relationship between the two would be significant. But assuming that Manafort and Assange *did* meet, the publicly visible line between Trump’s campaign and Russian actors is still indirect.