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Trump is siding with Julian Assange against the US intelligence community

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has leaked thousands of secret, sensitive US government documents in an overt attempt to damage America’s position in the world. More recently, he has been a pawn in Vladimir Putin’s campaign to interfere with the US election. The idea that an American leader would praise Assange, effusively, seems like it should be absurd.

Yet that’s exactly what Donald Trump did in two tweets on Wednesday morning. Trump praised Assange’s comments bashing the US media, made in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday night. Trump also repeated Assange’s claim, one contradicted by the consensus of the US intelligence community, that the Russians did not give Assange the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta that were then posted on WikiLeaks:

It’s important to take stock of how astounding this is. A Republican president-elect is signal boosting the ideas of a Russian-linked, anti-American activist who literally published a book titled The World According to US Empire. It’s a telling little moment that offers a glimpse of just how strange international and domestic politics are going to be in the Trump era.

Through the looking glass

The evidence that the Russian government hacked the emails of Podesta and the Democratic National Committee and then handed some of the emails to WikiLeaks is about as ironclad as it gets when it comes to cybersecurity. There is consensus on this issue inside the US intelligence community, and a wealth of publicly available evidence supports their conclusions.

But it suits both Assange and Trump to continue to deny Russian involvement.

Looking like a tool of one of the world’s preeminent authoritarian powers isn’t a great look for Assange, who claims to be an independent, pro-transparency activist. Assange already has a slew of links to the Russian state — at one point, he even had a show on Russia’s English-language propaganda station, RT. Whether Assange is lying about whom he got the hacked emails from or is merely in denial is mostly irrelevant at this point: It’s so much in his interest to deny that he got the emails from Russia that he won’t back down now.

Trump, for his part, doesn’t want his victory to come across as tainted — and is willing to go to extreme lengths to downplay Russia’s role in the election. Most notably, he’s launched a full-fledged public-relations war with the US intelligence community over its conclusions about Russia and the election.

Just a day before his Assange comments, Trump alleged on Twitter that his intelligence briefing on Russia’s election interference had been delayed, suggesting perhaps this was done so that the intelligence community could have more time to “build a case”:

But according to intelligence officials quoted by the Washington Post, CNN, and other outlets, this is not true. According to these officials, Trump had already received a briefing on Tuesday, and larger one focusing on the Russian hacking had always been scheduled for Friday.

The official quoted in the Post blamed Trump’s comments on a “scheduling disconnect” — which, sure. But the key point here is that Trump has already been publicly feuding with the intelligence community over its analysis of Russia’s role in the US election. He’s now turned to Assange, a man who has leaked the names of Afghan civilians working with the US as informants, to make the case against America’s own spies.

That this is bizarre behavior for a US president-elect should go without saying. It’s especially bizarre for a Republican, given that the party is historically skeptical of Russia’s role in the world and hawkish toward individuals who leak American state secrets.

Yet some prominent conservatives are now, all of a sudden, lining up to defend Assange. Hannity, whose friendly interview with Assange kicked this whole thing off, called for arresting Assange in 2010. Sarah Palin, who had previously called Assange “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands,” formally apologized to him after the Hannity interview aired.

Others, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, have stuck to their guns. “I don't believe any American should give a whole lot of credibility to anything Julian Assange says,” Graham tweeted. “No American should be duped by him.”

This sets up a conflict, then, between conservative principles and loyalty to the new Republican president. Trump, who’s supposed to set the party line, has been very clear: He won’t accept that the hack was done by Russia, and will side with those who cast doubt on this conclusion. Assuming his line doesn’t change after Friday’s intelligence briefing, Republicans worried about Russian influence on US politics will have to go to war with their own president.

This, then, is the bizarre state of American politics in 2017: You have the US president-elect aligning with Russia and WikiLeaks, with backing from Fox News personalities, against basically the entire US intelligence community and leading foreign policy figures within his own party.

What a world.

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