Last Updated: Friday, Nov. 17, 9:55 a.m.
The revelation that WikiLeaks secretly offered help to Donald Trump’s campaign, in a series of private Twitter messages sent to the candidate’s son Donald Trump Jr., gave ammunition to the group’s many detractors and also sparked anger from some longtime supporters of the organization and its founder, Julian Assange.
One of the most high-profile dissenters was journalist Barrett Brown, whose crowdsourced investigations of hacked corporate documents later posted on WikiLeaks led to a prison sentence.
Brown had a visceral reaction to the news, first reported by The Atlantic, that WikiLeaks had been advising the Trump campaign. In a series of tweets and Facebook videos, Brown accused Assange of having compromised “the movement” to expose corporate and government wrongdoing by acting as a covert political operative.
Brown explained that he had defended WikiLeaks for releasing emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee, “because it was an appropriate thing for a transparency org to do.” But, he added, “working with an authoritarian would-be leader to deceive the public is indefensible and disgusting.”
He was particularly outraged by an Oct. 21, 2016 message, in which Assange had appealed to Trump Jr. to let WikiLeaks publish one or more of his father’s tax returns in order to make his group’s attacks on Hillary Clinton seem less biased. “If we publish them it will dramatically improve the perception of our impartiality,” the Assange-controlled @Wikileaks account suggested. “That means that the vast amount of stuff that we are publishing on Clinton will have much higher impact, because it won’t be perceived as coming from a ‘pro-Trump’ ‘pro-Russia’ source, which the Clinton campaign is constantly slandering us with.”
As Brown pointed out in another tweet, it was all-caps exasperating that Assange was in this case “complaining about ‘slander’ of being pro-Trump IN THE ACTUAL COURSE OF COLLABORATING WITH TRUMP.”
The journalist, an Intercept contributor, whose work had been championed by WikiLeaks, also shared a link to a Reddit AMA conducted two days after the election in which WikiLeaks staff, including Assange’s longtime collaborator Sarah Harrison, had denied point-blank that they had collaborated with the Trump campaign.
“The allegations that we have colluded with Trump, or any other candidate for that matter, or with Russia, are just groundless and false,” the staffers wrote then. “We were not publishing with a goal to get any specific candidate elected.”
It is not surprising that Brown felt personally betrayed by Assange, since, as he explained on Facebook Tuesday night, “I went to prison because of my support for WikiLeaks.” Specifically, Brown said, the charges against him were related to his role in “operations to identify and punish members of the government and members of private companies that had been exposed by Anonymous hackers of my acquaintance, via email hacks, as having conspired to go after Assange, to go after WikiLeaks.”
That sort of activism, dedicated to making public secret wrongdoing, Brown argued, is very different from “colluding with an authoritarian presidential campaign backed by actual Nazis while publicly denying it.”
“Plainly,” he observed with bitterness, “the prospect of a Clinton in the White House was such an unimaginable nightmare scenario that all normal standards of truth and morality became moot and it became necessary to get people like Sebastian Gorka into the White House to establish order.”
Before his private messages to Trump Jr. were leaked, Assange himself had categorically denied that he or WikiLeaks had been attacking Hillary Clinton to help elect Donald Trump. “This is not due to a personal desire to influence the outcome of the election,” he wrote in a statement released on November 8 as Americans went to the polls.
Even though Assange had by then transformed the WikiLeaks Twitter feed into a vehicle for smearing Clinton, he insisted that his work was journalistic in nature. “The right to receive and impart true information is the guiding principle of WikiLeaks — an organization that has a staff and organizational mission far beyond myself,” Assange wrote. “Millions of Americans have pored over the leaks and passed on their citations to each other and to us,” he added. “It is an open model of journalism that gatekeepers are uncomfortable with, but which is perfectly harmonious with the First Amendment.”
The same morning, WikiLeaks tweeted an attack on Clinton for not having driven her own car during her decades of public service.
Clinton: out of touch, cronyistic, didn't drive a car in 35 years, flew all over the world but accomplished nothing https://t.co/dc2OjdPIII pic.twitter.com/P8yiYkD6bO
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) November 8, 2016
For Brown, and others who have been critical of Assange for using the platform of WikiLeaks to fight his own political and personal battles, his secret communication with the Trump campaign was damning because it revealed that he had been functioning more like a freelance political operative, doling out strategy and advice, than a journalist interested in obtaining and publishing information, concerned only with its accuracy.
James Ball, a former WikiLeaks volunteer who has described the difficulty of working for someone who lies so much, was also appalled by one post-election message to Trump Jr., in which WikiLeaks suggested that, as a form of payback, it would be “helpful for your dad to suggest that Australia appoint Assange ambassador to DC.”
That request for payback, on December 16, 2016, came three weeks after Trump’s father had called on the British government to make his friend Nigel Farage its ambassador. “This should be it, game over, end of it, for anyone who tries to suggest Assange looks out for anyone except himself,” Ball observed on Twitter. “That’s his cause, and plenty of good people have been played, badly.”
There was also criticism from journalists like Chris Hayes of MSNBC, a network Assange accused of being, along with the New York Times, “the most biased source” in one note to Trump Jr. Pointing to a message from WikiLeaks sent on Election Day, advising Trump to refuse to concede and claim the election was rigged, Hayes asked how, exactly, offering that sort of political advice squared with the organization’s mission to promote transparency.
Still, many of Assange’s most vocal supporters stuck with him, calling even secret communication with the Trump campaign to undermine Clinton entirely consistent with his vision of WikiLeaks as a sort of opposition research group, dedicated to “crushing bastards” by finding dirt in the servers of powerful individuals or organizations.
As Raffi Khatchadourian explained in a New Yorker profile of the WikiLeaks founder in 2010, “Assange, despite his claims to scientific journalism, emphasized to me that his mission is to expose injustice, not to provide an even-handed record of events.” To Assange, Khatchadourian wrote, “Leaks were an instrument of information warfare.”
One steadfast Assange ally was Kim Dotcom, founder of the shuttered file-sharing site MegaUpload, who helped fuel a conspiracy theory that the DNC emails had not been hacked by Russia, but provided to WikiLeaks by a young Democratic staffer named Seth Rich, who was subsequently murdered. Alluding to another entirely unsubstantiated allegation — that Clinton had once suggested killing Assange in a drone strike — Dotcom said that the WikiLeaks founder was merely part of a crowdsourced political operation that had successfully defeated the greater evil.
I think what @JulianAssange wrote to @DonaldJTrumpJr is perfectly fine. Who’s surprised? He doesn’t like Hillary. She wanted to assassinate him with a drone for publishing the truth. And he’s fishing for information like any good editor. We wanted to prevent Hillary and we did!
— Kim Dotcom (@KimDotcom) November 14, 2017
As it happens, one of the anti-Clinton rumors that WikiLeaks had urged Trump Jr. to “push” in an October 3, 2016 message was a tweet linking to that unsubstantiated allegation in an unsigned blog post citing anonymous sources. The blog post includes no documentation of the allegation, but the WikiLeaks tweet linking to it, which Trump Jr. told Assange he did share, included an excerpt from the blog post in which the type was styled to look like a leaked document.
Hillary Clinton on Assange "Can't we just drone this guy" — report https://t.co/S7tPrl2QCZ pic.twitter.com/qy2EQBa48y
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) October 3, 2016
As Jesse Singal reported for New York magazine the day after that tweet was posted, and quickly went viral, there was no reason to believe that anonymous blogger had any source at all for the claim. The post does reference one email sent to Clinton, which was not leaked but archived by the State Department, in which one of her advisers said that a memo had been prepared of “possible legal and nonlegal strategies re wikileaks.” But, as Singal explained: “‘non-legal’ doesn’t mean the same thing as ‘illegal’ — rather, it’s a fairly common term in government, and it can refer to basically anything that doesn’t directly involve the legal system. If you run Google searches over the websites of the White House or the State or Justice Departments, for example, those searches will yield a handful of hits in which the U.S. government speaks openly of ‘nonlegal’ this or that, none of which are open admissions of lawbreaking.”
Earlier in the campaign, the WikiLeaks Twitter feed had also shared video from 2010 of a Fox News pundit, Bob Beckel, calling for Assange’s assassination, with a caption that incorrectly identified him as a “Hillary Clinton strategist.”
Beckel did not work for Clinton. He served in the State Department during the Carter administration, three decades before Clinton was secretary of state, and then ran Walter Mondale’s failed campaign for the presidency in 1984.
While WikiLeaks has undoubtedly facilitated the release of information that is both true and important, it is Assange’s Trump-like willingness to traffic in such unsubstantiated rumors, conspiracy theories, and innuendo not supported by evidence that undermines his claim to be a disinterested publisher, not a political operative.
This willingness to traffic in false or misleading information was very much in evidence during his work on behalf of Trump, and it is a consistent feature of Assange’s advocacy for other people and causes.
During the final week of the Brexit campaign last year, Assange tried to undermine the credibility of a witness to the savage murder of a pro-European Union member of parliament, Jo Cox. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Brexit supporters like Assange were concerned that a wave of sympathy for the murdered MP could sway the vote. So they set out to contest evidence that the killing had been politically motivated.
To that end, the WikiLeaks Twitter feed drew attention to the fact that one witness to the killing — who said he had heard the attacker shout “Britain First!” — might have belonged to a racist political group, the British National Party, whose membership rolls WikiLeaks had obtained. Within hours of the murder, WikiLeaks also shared a link to a conspiratorial post from the pro-Brexit Breitbart U.K., which speculated that the witness might have lied about what he heard as part of a feud among far-right racist groups.
UK: "witness" who claimed MP slayer shouted "Britain First!" appears in BNP list https://t.co/pCSc1HOmqV #Brexit pic.twitter.com/qgylg91u3T
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) June 17, 2016
The next day, British police confirmed that the attacker told the arresting officers he was a “political activist” and had indeed shouted pro-Brexit phrases, including “Britain First,” during the murder.
More recently, during the separatist protests in Catalonia he supported, Assange was forced to delete several fake or misleading images he had shared on Twitter — including one photograph he mistakenly said showed the head of Spanish military police kissing a flag at a demonstration, and another of Spanish police officers struggling with Catalans, which had been digitally altered to insert a Catalan independence flag.
That is not Ángel Gonzalo. pic.twitter.com/vzqPEaXJi8
— MALDITO BULO (@malditobulo) October 8, 2017
In the final months of the 2016 presidential election, the WikiLeaks Twitter feed promoted not just its new publications, but also frequently referred to tabloid rumors — like old chestnuts about Hillary Clinton’s supposed “role in the death of White House counsel Vince Foster” — and wild conspiracy theories about her campaign chair taking part in bloody satanic rituals.
FBI interview with Hillary Clinton over death of White House aid have gone 'missing' from the US National Archives https://t.co/YCbOHqwlkb
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) August 23, 2016
The Podestas' "Spirit Cooking" dinner?
It's not what you think.
It's blood, sperm and breastmilk.
But mostly blood.https://t.co/gGPWFS3B2H pic.twitter.com/I43KiiraDh
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) November 4, 2016
We know now that, from late September on, Assange was also privately using that account to urge the candidate’s son to hype the mostly anodyne emails stolen from the account of campaign chair, John Podesta, as crucial evidence of Clinton’s unfitness for office. And it certainly looks like the campaign took his advice.
On October 12, 2016, just 15 minutes after Assange told Trump Jr. that a new batch of Podesta emails had been released, with “many great stories the press are missing,” his father tweeted a complaint accusing “the dishonest media” of ignoring “incredible information provided by WikiLeaks.”
Very little pick-up by the dishonest media of incredible information provided by WikiLeaks. So dishonest! Rigged system!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2016
In the same message, Assange urged Trump Jr. to share a link he provided to the email database — wlsearch.tk — so “you guys can get all your followers digging through the content.” Two days later, Trump Jr. shared that link.
For those who have the time to read about all the corruption and hypocrisy all the @wikileaks emails are right here: https://t.co/SGcEeM9rCS
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) October 14, 2016
Despite the constant claims from Assange and the Trumps that the emails stolen from Democrats implicated Clinton in scandal and corruption, it is important to keep in mind that the WikiLeaks method of encouraging Trump supporters and Reddit trolls to scour the documents for evidence of malfeasance did not, in fact, uncover any such evidence.
Instead, the hacked emails were used to reverse-engineer preposterous conspiracy theories, like the imaginary pedophilia scandal called Pizzagate, which WikiLeaks was still treating as real two months after the election.
CBS Reality Check covers Pizzagate. https://t.co/KNaKp1XONR
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) January 18, 2017
This is the real tragedy and menace of the public and private collaboration of WikiLeaks with Trump. An organization with a sterling reputation for providing the public with accurate information about secret government and corporate activities was used to launder conspiracy theories that helped elect a racist, sexual predator president of the United States.
That might be a terrific result for people like Julian Assange, who see a dysfunctional, discredited White House as a way to undermine what they see as the real evil empire. For Americans condemned to live under Trump, particularly the most marginalized who, as Noam Chomsky has observed, will suffer the most from his cruelty, it is a far more troubling outcome.
Update: Nov. 16, 2017, 8:55 a.m.
Some supporters of Julian Assange have argued that the October 21 direct message that so infuriated Barrett Brown — in which Assange argued that it would be good for the Trump campaign to allow WikiLeaks to publish one or more of Donald Trump’s tax returns — merely showed the publisher trying to obtain private material of public interest. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the proposal, explicitly presented as a way for WikiLeaks to seem to be less “pro-Trump,” would have compromised the organization’s principles, by disguising material released by a political campaign as a leak obtained from a whistleblower.
It is also important to remember what was happening in the news at that time. Three weeks before WikiLeaks solicited Trump’s tax information, an anonymous source mailed three pages from Trump’s 1995 tax return to The New York Times, which published an analysis showing that Trump had used entirely legal means to avoid paying federal taxes. Had the Trump campaign provided WikiLeaks with another old return, it is possible that the organization could have published tax information that would not have damaged Trump politically, but would have misled its readers into believing that the organization was working to undermine Trump as well as Clinton.
After Trump took office, a page from his 2005 tax return, showing that he had paid millions in taxes that year, was mailed anonymously to David Cay Johnston. The reporter speculated that the source could have been Trump himself, seeking to undercut the widespread assumption that there is embarrassing information contained in the more recent tax returns he broke with precedent to keep secret. “Donald,” Johnston told Rachel Maddow, “has a long history of leaking material about himself when he thinks it’s in his interest.”
It is also worth noting that this offer to help Trump came less than two weeks after The Washington Post had thrown the campaign into crisis, by revealing that the candidate had boasted of sexual assault in comments recorded during the taping of an “Access Hollywood” episode in 2005. The recording caught Trump saying that, “when you’re a star,” you can “do anything” to women, even “grab them by the pussy.” WikiLeaks released its first batch of emails hacked from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, less than an hour after that report was published.
Editor’s Note: Nov. 17, 2017, 9:55 a.m.
Because of the phrasing of the original headline, this piece was mischaracterized as an Intercept editorial. The headline has been changed to clarify that it is a news article reflecting the author’s analysis.