The Justice Department has revealed that it has charged Julian Assange, who is behind bars in Britain awaiting possible extradition to the United States. This has rendered unhelpful a whole lot of past commentary by President Trump.
Trump’s response: deflect, deflect, deflect.
“I know nothing about WikiLeaks,” Trump told reporters Thursday. “It’s not my thing.”
“I know nothing about WikiLeaks” is patently false. While “my thing” is a subjective phrase open to interpretation, it’s pretty difficult to argue that WikiLeaks hasn’t been Trump’s thing.
In fact, Trump mentioned WikiLeaks more than 100 times in just the final month of the 2016 campaign, according to Factba.se. Many of those times, he expressed admiration for the anti-secrecy group’s work. “This WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable,” he said once. “Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks,” he said another time. Yet another time: “Oh, we love WikiLeaks. Boy, they have really — WikiLeaks! They have revealed a lot.”
Trump’s decision to play down his past embrace of WikiLeaks is no surprise. In fact, it’s his M.O. Whenever anyone around him gets in trouble — be it Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos or Michael Cohen — he and his White House tend to minimize their proximity to him, no matter how implausibly. Foreign policy advisers become “coffee boys.” Campaign chairmen who ran the heart of his 2016 campaign become people who “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”
But Trump unquestionably made WikiLeaks a prominent feature of his stump speech in the closing days of the 2016 campaign, bear-hugging its disclosures and arguing it was performing an important service. The media trafficked in these disclosures, too, but Trump went a step further in actually praising WikiLeaks. As with Russia, he adopted an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend approach. Even after he became president and his own intelligence community essentially accused WikiLeaks of being a front for the Russian government, Trump declined to harshly judge either one.
What’s most jarring about all of this, though, is that he once actually suggested the death penalty for those involved with WikiLeaks. He did this just six years before 2016, after WikiLeaks’ and Chelsea Manning’s Iraq and Afghanistan war disclosures.
“I think it’s disgraceful,” Trump said at the time. “I think it should be like death penalty or something.”
And, importantly, those are the events that are actually at the heart of the new charge against Assange — not the 2016-Russia stuff. So even if Trump thinks the Russia stuff was okay and not a big deal, what about the leaks that he once said were worthy of the death penalty? That would seem to warrant a much stronger response than “I know nothing about” it. He knew enough about it in 2010 to recommend that the people involved be put to death, after all.
To the extent that Trump doesn’t condemn WikiLeaks for its 2010 actions like he did back then — even now that Assange has been charged — the more hypocritical and politically expedient it will look. The president who seems to have taken Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s word over his own intelligence community’s will effectively be giving a pass to a man who Trump’s own government says conspired to release documents in a way that Trump once said warranted capital punishment.
The president will continue to be asked about this. But the answers won’t get any easier.