During a question-and-answer session with reporters outside the White House on Tuesday, President Donald Trump was asked if he thinks WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should “be able to go free.” The president attempted to deflect the question with a bizarre rant about how Chuck Schumer’s daughter works for Facebook.
But a few minutes later, the reporter tried asking Trump about Assange again. This time, the president claimed that “I don’t know anything about him. Really, I don’t know much about him, I really don’t.”
Trump, whose closing campaign message in 2016 was all about WikiLeaks, now says of Julian Assange, "I don't know much about him, I really don't." pic.twitter.com/yUeQBGpbG9— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) November 20, 2018
The questions about Assange, who has been holed in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than six years, come less than a week after news broke that the US government has filed sealed charges against him.
“I love WikiLeaks!”
Trump may not know Assange personally, but it’s impossible to believe he’s not familiar with his work.
As ThinkProgress documented, in the final month before the 2016 presidential election, Trump mentioned WikiLeaks and the hacked emails it published at least 164 times during speeches, media appearances, and debates. Trump’s own intelligence officials acknowledge Russian hackers were responsible for obtaining emails from the DNC and Clinton campaign that were later published by WikiLeaks.
“WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks!” Trump professed during a speech on October 10. “And I said write a couple of them down. Let’s see. ‘During a speech crooked Hillary Clinton’ — oh she’s crooked folks. She’s crooked as a three-dollar bill. Okay here’s one. Just came out. ‘Lock her up’ is right.”
During an interview that aired the next day, Trump told Bill O’Reilly: “The press is hardly even talking about WikiLeaks. You know that. WikiLeaks is amazing. The stuff that’s coming out, it shows she’s a real liar.”
On October 21, Trump told his audience at a rally that “We love WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks. They have revealed a lot. They’ve revealed that there is a great hostility toward Catholics. They reveal a great hostility toward evangelicals.”
Four days later, at another rally, Trump said that “a terrible WikiLeaks was just released moments ago, which you’ll go home, you’ll see it, and you’ll be sickened by it and that she can get away with what she’s getting away with.”
On November 2, Trump claimed that “WikiLeaks just came out with a new one just a little while ago it’s just been shown that a rigged system with more collusion, probably illegal, between the Department of Justice the Clinton campaign and the State Department, you saw that.”
MSNBC put together a supercut of Trump’s mentions of WikiLeaks during the final month of the campaign.
WATCH: Pres. Trump mentioned Wikileaks 141 times in the month before the election. pic.twitter.com/4Z7fcwrLSm— MSNBC (@MSNBC) November 15, 2017
Trump has spent two years trying to walk back his embrace of WikiLeaks
After Trump won the election but before he took office, he tried to downplay the role WikiLeaks played in his win, saying information published by Assange’s organization had “absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election.”
Trump also tried to pin blame for the hacks of the DNC and Clinton campaign on Democrats, thereby absolving Assange of blame.
Julian Assange said "a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta" - why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2017
But since he Trump took office, even his top intelligence officials have acknowledged WikiLeaks acted on Russia’s behalf during the 2016 election, and both CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Jeff Sessions aggressively pushed an investigation into Assange, according to a recent New York Times report. Recently, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign for possible collusion with Russia has reportedly honed in on the role long-time Trump confidante Roger Stone may have played as a liaison between team Trump and WikiLeaks.
While Trump professes ignorance about Assange, his campaign argued last month in a legal filing that WikiLeaks “could not be held liable for publishing emails that were stolen by Russian hackers ahead of the 2016 US election because the website was simply serving as a passive publishing platform on behalf of a third party, in the same way as Google or Facebook,” the Guardian reported.
Trump, meanwhile, still doesn’t seem to accept that Russia was responsible for hacking Democrats. Just last week, he posted a tweet asking “Why didn’t the FBI take the Server from the DNC? They still don’t have it” — his baseless implication being that Russia may not have ultimately been responsible for the DNC hack, and that the FBI possibly helped Democrats cover up that inconvenient truth.
With his campaign still under investigation for possible collusion with Russia and his top intelligence officials acknowledging that WikiLeaks was a key part of Russia’s propaganda campaign on Trump’s behalf, though, it’s clear Trump believes it’s in his interest to play naive about Assange — however implausible doing so may be.