The charges that led to Julian Assange’s arrest have nothing to do with the 2016 presidential election or the Mueller investigation into Donald Trump’s Russian ties, but the extradition case and Assange’s possible arrival in the US will be electrified by all those unresolved issues.
“I know nothing about Wikileaks. It’s not my thing,” Donald Trump told reporters asking for a reaction to the arrest. That is not what he said on the campaign, when he frequently praised the organisation that Assange founded, and which arguably played an important role in getting Trump elected.
Assange’s role in 2016 cut like a meat cleaver through the administration, dividing Trump loyalists on the far right – who see him as a hero persecuted by the “deep state” – from the traditional conservatives who portray him as nothing less than a Kremlin accomplice.
The case that finally led to the WikiLeaks founder being yanked out of the Ecuadorean embassy harks back to 2010, when Assange starting working with Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning to unlock the coded doors to the inner workings and communications of the US military and diplomatic corps.
For years, US prosecutors have been wrestling with ways to getting hold of Assange. Under the Obama administration, the FBI and CIA argued that he was a malicious hacker and information broker who should not benefit from the free speech protections of a journalist.
Others, including Barack Obama himself, did not want a damaging and draining fight over free speech. The New York Times reported that the FBI and CIA asked for a meeting with the president to argue their case, and were turned down.
“The case would have provoked some difficult questions that Obama’s DoJ [Department of Justice] looked at very closely and decided couldn’t go that route,” said Susan Hennessey, a former NSA lawyer at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The narrow framing of the indictment against Assange in the eastern district of Virginia, limits the focus on computer hacking crimes rather than publication of secret documents, bypassing all the free speech aspects of Assange’s case.
CNN has reported that US prosecutors may also be preparing to unveil other charges against Assange, which would widen the case, possibly to involve his role in the late stages of the 2016 presidential election. But if Assange does eventually appear in court in Alexandria, his fate is likely to become a new focus in the unceasing battle over Trump’s legitimacy.
By publishing internal Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails hacked by Russian intelligence in the last weeks of the 2016 campaign, Assange inserted himself as a central actor not only in US politics but also in Russia’s multi-pronged hybrid war against the west.
Welcoming the arrest on Thursday morning, Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, called Assange a “direct participant in Russian efforts to undermine the west and a dedicated accomplice in efforts to undermine American security”.
That is also the official position of the US government which has called WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service”, but it is not shared by Trump’s alt-right base, nor – if his rhetoric is anything to go by – by the president himself.
Moscow meanwhile has been lauding Assange as a champion of free expression. The foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova commented on the arrest on her Facebook, declaring: “The hand of ‘democracy’ squeezes the throat of freedom.”
Trump celebrated WikiLeaks on the election trail, giving them shout-outs164 times in the last month of the campaign alone. “WikiLeaks – I love WikiLeaks,” he told one rally. He told another “This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove.”
After the election, Trump continued to cite Assange approvingly.
“The dishonest media likes saying that I am in agreement with Julian Assange – wrong,” he tweeted during the presidential transition in January 2017. “I simply state what he states, it is for the people … to make up their own minds as to the truth.”
Roger Stone, a veteran Republican master of political dirty tricks, and a longstanding friend of Trump, was in frequent contact with the Trump campaign about WikiLeaks plans for publishing material damaging to Hillary Clinton. He has claimed he was pretending to be close to Assange to inflate his on importance. But he has called the Australian his “hero”.
Assange’s extradition would lay bare the contradictions in the Trump coalition, which are embodied by the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who has managed to remain simultaneously a Trump favorite and a traditional Republican foreign policy hawk on Russia.
During the campaign, Pompeo – then a Republican congressman – helped promote Wikileaks publication of Democratic party emails.
“Need further proof that the fix was in from Pres Obama on down? BUSTED: 19,252 Emails from DNC Leaked by WikiLeaks,” he tweeted in July 2016.
On becoming CIA director the next year, however, Pompeo declared it was “time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is: a non state, hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors, like Russia.” He called Assange a “narcissist” and “a fraud – a coward hiding behind a screen.”
Pompeo has thus far succeeded in glossing over such contradictions, and the whole administration, a knotted bundle of contradictions itself, has barreled on regardless. But Assange’s extradition will add a new level of complication to US politics, still fighting over the president’s legitimacy from the 2016 election as the nation rolls ever more frenetically towards the next contest in 2020.