John Rees debunks one of the prosecution's key arguments in the Assange trial
On one of the occasions that I visited Julian Assange in Belmarsh prison, before lockdown cut him off from all visitors, including family and lawyers, our conversation turned to Donald Trump. Specifically to the persistent story that circulates in some quarters that Donald Trump is a supporter of WikiLeaks.
Pretty odd, we agreed, that a US administration headed by a supporter of WikiLeaks would take out an 18 count indictment which threatens its founder with 175 years in jail and which is already responsible for having him held in a high security prison for many months. With supporters like that you could be forgiven for wishing to be in the hands of your enemies.
But however unlikely this story is, it persists. Indeed, the US prosecutors in the extradition case at the Old Bailey are heavily reliant on it.
Well, the Extradition Treaty between the UK and the US specifically prohibits extradition for political cases. So James Lewis QC, the US government’s lawyer, repeatedly returns to arguments which seek to deny any political aspect of the case.
So it is a central prosecution theme that Julian Assange is neither a journalist nor politically motivated but merely a common or garden thief.
Equally important for Lewis is the argument that the case against Assange is not politically motivated on the part of the Trump regime but simply an ongoing prosecution with bipartisan support in the US.
To bolster this claim Lewis repeatedly quotes Donald Trump’s 2016 exclamation ‘I love WikiLeaks!’. If Donald loves Julian, the prosecution song goes, how can this case be politically motivated?
Let’s examine the context of all this, something Lewis carefully avoids doing.
Firstly, lets grant the prosecution their strongest case. In the 2016 election campaign there is no doubt that Trump was happy to see news stories based on WikiLeaks material that showed the Democrats and Hillary Clinton in a bad light.
Consequently Trump said 10 October 2016, ‘This just came out. WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks.’ On 12 October 2016, he said ‘This WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable. It tells you the inner heart, you gotta read it.’ On 13 October 2016 in Cincinnati he said ‘It’s been amazing what’s coming out on WikiLeaks’. Then on 31 October 2016 ‘Another one came in today. This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove’. And on 4 November 2016 in Wilmington, Ohio: ‘Getting off the plane, they were just announcing new WikiLeaks, and I wanted to stay there, but I didn’t want to keep you waiting,’ said Trump. ‘Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks.’ There’s much more like this from Trump in 2016.
It’s pretty clear what’s happening here. Trump is simply and only revelling in the discomfort of his political opponents. What he is not doing is endorsing the mission of WikiLeaks to shine the light of publicity on government crimes and national security wrong doing. Far less is he reflecting on the Iraq or Afghan war logs, the revelations about Guantanamo, or the release of secret diplomatic cables…which is what the extradition hearing is about.
Secondly, these campaign trail outbursts are not all that Donald Trump has had to say about WikiLeaks. Just three years later, in 2019, as Assange was arrested at the US’s request in London, Trump said: ‘I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It’s not my thing and I know there is something having to do with Julian Assange. I’ve been seeing what’s happened with Assange’.
But even before that, in January 2017, with the 2016 campaign still fresh in the memory, Trump was saying ‘The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange – wrong.’ And in November 2018 Trump was already rehearsing the line he would use when Assange was arrested: ‘I don’t know anything about him. Really, I don’t know much about him. I really don’t’.
These rather obvious lies came badly unstuck this week in court when barrister Jen Robinson from Assange’s legal team gave evidence. She recalled a meeting in 2017 at which Assange had been offered a pardon by a Trump intermediary if he would name the source of the leaks about Clinton and the Democrats.
Trump was looking to get off the hook in the Mueller enquiry into Russian influence in the 2016 election by undermining claims he had collaborated with Russia to obtain the Clinton emails.
Jen Robinson told the extradition hearing about the message brought from Trump to Assange by then Congressman Dana Rohrabacher: ‘The proposal put forward by Congressman Rohrabacher was that Mr Assange identify the source for the 2016 election publications in return for some kind of pardon, assurance or agreement which would both benefit President Trump politically and prevent US indictment and extradition.’
Although both Rohrabacher and Trump deny they were in contact, James Lewis said in court on behalf of the US government: ‘The position of the government is we don’t contest these things were said’, adding, ‘We obviously do not accept the truth of what was said by others.’
The Rohrabacher initiative came to nothing because Assange refused the offer to betray his sources.
So the truth of Trump’s attitude to WikiLeaks is now obvious.
Trump relished the bad publicity for the Democrats during the election, but was never a supporter of WikiLeaks and its wider mission to reveal state secrets. Immediately the election was over he distanced himself from Assange and then denied all knowledge of WikiLeaks once his administration had revived the charges against Assange which had been effectively abandoned by the Obama administration. No doubt Assange’s refusal to help Trump in the Mueller enquiry made that decision an easy one.
But there is more to the context of this story. As every school student of politics knows, candidacy and incumbency are not the same. Trump on the campaign trail and Trump in the White House are two different things.
Once in the Oval Office even Presidents with a great many more political principles than Donald Trump become instruments of the state bureaucracy. In America, particularly the national security bureaucracy.
Right wing populists rarely if ever revolt against the establishment that they spend so much rhetoric denouncing. The words are for the angry base, for electoral advantage. But the millionaire mavericks are creatures of the swamp not principled opponents of it. They are there to drive establishment politics further right, not to dismantle the state machine, and certainly not its military-security core.
Trump is going to endorse the state’s hostility to the ‘people’s security service’, there was never any real doubt about that. He is in charge of a political prosecution.
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John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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