Assange is in a British prison while he awaits a decision on an extradition request by the United States. The U.S. government wants him to stand trial on charges that he violated the Espionage Act by allegedly helping to obtain and then disseminating secret government documents in 2010 and 2011 relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Assange is fighting the extradition — arguing that he acted as a publisher and journalist and that the United States is pursuing him for “political offenses.” He faces a possible 175-year sentence if convicted.
In a hearing Wednesday, Edward Fitzgerald, one of Assange’s lawyers, told a judge in Westminster Magistrates’ Court here that Assange wanted to submit evidence that Trump offered him a deal in 2017 through Rohrabacher.
Fitzgerald made the assertion in seeking the court’s permission to admit a statement by Jennifer Robinson, a lawyer for WikiLeaks who says she was present when Rohrabacher made the offer.
Robinson’s statement, read in part in open court and reported by the British Press Association, lays out her version of what was said by Rohrabacher in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London on Aug. 16, 2017. Also present with Rohrabacher, then a congressman from Orange County, Calif., was Charles Johnson, a conservative political activist. Rohrabacher was defeated in 2018.
At the time of the meeting, Assange was not under indictment. The following year, he was indicted under seal. The indictment was unsealed in April.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser ruled that Robinson’s statement was admissible in court, thereby possibly dragging Trump into the proceedings.
Rohrabacher’s meeting with Assange at the embassy was no secret.
Following his trip to London, Rohrabacher told the Orange Country Register that Assange “reaffirmed his aggressive denial that the Russians had anything to do with the hacking of the DNC during the election.”
He added: “I think it will have an earth-shattering political impact.”
In a statement posted to his website on Wednesday, Rohrabacher said, “At no time did I talk to President Trump about Julian Assange. Likewise, I was not directed by Trump or anyone else connected with him to meet with Julian Assange.”
He said he was on his “own fact finding mission at personal expense” and that “at no time did I offer Julian Assange anything from the President because I had not spoken with the President about this issue at all.” But, he added, he told Assange that if he gave him evidence about who provided him the DNC emails, he would ask Trump to pardon him.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham on Wednesday denied the allegation that Trump was seeking a trade with Assange. “The president barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he’s an ex-congressman,” she said in a statement. “He’s never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject. It is a complete fabrication and a total lie. This is probably another never ending hoax and total lie from the DNC.”
Trump has long bristled at the U.S. intelligence community’s “high confidence” conclusion, revealed publicly in January 2017, that Moscow was behind the hacking and releasing of Democratic emails in the 2016 presidential contest, and that it was part of an effort ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign and aid Trump’s. The president has suggested that the hacker could have been “some guy in his home in New Jersey” or the work of the Chinese.
The first hearing on Assange’s extradition to the United States is scheduled to begin at Woolwich Crown Court outside London on Monday, with one week of legal argument. The case will be adjourned and will continue with three weeks of evidence on May 18.
It is not clear when Assange’s defense team will present to the court their evidence that Rohrabacher sought to make a deal with Assange for Trump.
Assange has been incarcerated in Belmarsh Prison after he was found guilty of breaching his bail conditions when he fled to the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.
In 2012, Assange took refuge at the embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he was wanted for questioning over sexual assault allegations. Assange has always denied the allegations. Sweden has since ended its investigation.
Assange was holed up in the embassy for nearly seven years before his arrest in April.
Chelsea Manning, the former Army private who was convicted on charges she provided the Iraq and Afghanistan documents to WikiLeaks, is petitioning for release from jail. Manning, whose prison sentence was commuted in January 2017 by President Barack Obama, said she will never comply with a subpoena to testify in front of a grand jury about her interactions with Assange.
Nakashima reported from Washington. Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.