A GOP congressman's lonely quest defending Julian Assange

President Trump's secretary of state has dubbed Julian Assange's group WikiLeaks a "hostile intelligence service." Tr...

Posted: May 23, 2018 12:02 PM
Updated: May 23, 2018 12:02 PM

President Trump's secretary of state has dubbed Julian Assange's group WikiLeaks a "hostile intelligence service." Trump's national security adviser once called on the US to use WikiLeaks for "target practice." And his attorney general asserted that the arrest of Assange remains a "priority" for the United States.

But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher sees Assange differently.

"He's a very honorable man," Rohrabacher told CNN.

Rohrabacher, a California Republican facing a potentially difficult re-election this fall, occupies an unusual space in politics. He's an unapologetic defender of someone viewed as a villain in Washington and a sharp skeptic of the widely held view in Congress and from US intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the US elections.

In an interview with CNN, the Russia-friendly congressman doubled down on his stance, vigorously defending Assange and offering details about a meeting he initiated -- along with a controversial, far-right blogger -- with the WikiLeaks founder at the Ecuadorian embassy last summer in London where he has been out of reach of authorities since 2012.

Rohrabacher, 70, came away from that meeting assured that the hack at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 2016 -- viewed with certainty by the US intelligence community as an attack orchestrated by Russia -- had nothing to do with the Kremlin. It was, as Rohrabacher asserted, an "inside job," though there's no evidence to suggest that's the case.

"No, I do not," Rohrabacher said flatly when asked if he believed the Russians were behind the hack of the DNC and former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's emails.

"He said, 'I have physical proof that the Russians did not give me this,'" Rohrabacher said, referring to Assange. "And [Assange said] that 'I have physical proof that I would be very happy to provide once I can leave the Ecuadorian embassy without being arrested.'"

Rohrabacher, a former aide to Ronald Reagan who has served in the House for nearly three decades, tried to take Assange's message directly to Trump but was denied a meeting by White House chief of staff John Kelly, something the California Republican attributed to the Mueller investigation. A source familiar with the White House's thinking said officials feared Trump would seize onto Rohrabacher's cause to rebut allegations of campaign collusion with Russia, but doing so would put Trump at sharp odds with the rest of his government that has pinned the blame for election meddling squarely on the Kremlin.

"That's what I wanted to talk to the President about," Rohrabacher said, referring to Assange's promise to provide information to Washington exonerating Russia in exchange for allowing him to be released from the embassy without being arrested by the US. "But now I've been cut off from that because of the fear that the special counsel here will use that as an excuse to expand this nonsensical witch hunt."

Rohrabacher has spoken with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees about his interactions with Assange, but he has yet to speak to Mueller's team. His deputy chief of staff, Paul Behrends, who also has Russia contacts, has spoken to the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to Rohrabacher's spokesman.

Last year US officials told CNN that authorities have prepared charges to seek the arrest of Assange -- who has been under investigation by the Justice Department dating back to at least 2010 when WikiLeaks posted thousands of files stolen by the former US Army intelligence analyst now known as Chelsea Manning.

That preceded the effort in 2016 when hackers working for Russian intelligence agencies stole thousands of emails from the DNC and officials in the Clinton campaign and used intermediaries to pass along the documents to WikiLeaks, according to a public assessment by US intelligence agencies.

But Rohrabacher, who views himself as a "Libertarian conservative" and Assange as a "Libertarian leftist," sees it differently. While he said "a few times" WikiLeaks has released information that has been "damaging to our national security," Rohrabacher added: "I think he's had a good positive influence on our country and the world by making information available that was not available."

How Dana met Julian

Late one night last year while hosting a barbeque at his home in California, Rohrabacher struck up a conversation with Chuck Johnson, a conservative blogger with controversial views who has a friendly relationship with the congressman.

Johnson told CNN that the two discussed meeting in London since they both planned to be in Europe on separate trips at the same time. Their plan: Meet with Assange, with whom Johnson says he has a prior relationship and speaks with on a "semi-regular basis" through his associates.

Rohrabacher, who became the first congressman known to have met with Assange, paid for the trip out of his own pocket since it was not authorized by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he serves as a member, according to a congressional aide. Rohrabacher has long contended that his position on the panel has encouraged him to build closer ties to Russia.

The two Americans met in a conference room of the Ecuadorian embassy with just Assange and his attorney present. Rohrabacher first had to convince the WikiLeaks founder he was not one of "those deep state guys" -- and was on Assange's side.

"He had to get a feeling that he could trust me and he knows I'm not there as basically an agent for the government," Rohrabacher said.

During their three-hour meeting, Rohrabacher recalled discussing their respective philosophies about government -- and talking at length about the 2016 meddling in the elections. Assange made the case that the Russians were not behind the 2016 attacks on the US elections.

"He showed us the evidence that the Russians were not involved," Johnson said. "He said he would love to open up a channel of communication with the Trump administration, and we said we would see what we would do on that front."

Both Rohrabacher and Johnson said Assange did not disclose having any contacts with Trump associates during the 2016 elections.

"I didn't talk to him about that," Rohrabacher said.

When they returned to Washington, Johnson said they pursued the matter with White House officials and several lawmakers, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whom the two met with, according to Johnson. Paul declined to comment. "I don't have anything for you," he said when asked about the meeting.

Johnson said he had a "pretty good conversation" with Paul but the senator was "resigned to the fact" that there was no way to pursue their cause.

"No one really wanted to touch the matter," Johnson said.

And virtually no one on Capitol Hill shares Rohrabacher's rosy view of Assange.

"Deep staters believe that he's a bad guy and an evil person," Rohrabacher said. "I don't."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 307836

Reported Deaths: 7119
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto20784248
Hinds19894408
Harrison17493302
Rankin13316275
Jackson13099243
Madison9896210
Lee9859169
Jones8293160
Forrest7523146
Lauderdale7189237
Lowndes6265144
Lamar610784
Lafayette6028117
Washington5280132
Bolivar4770129
Oktibbeha455297
Panola4442103
Pearl River4420139
Warren4281118
Marshall4273100
Pontotoc416472
Monroe4057132
Union403775
Neshoba3988176
Lincoln3871108
Hancock372185
Leflore3468124
Sunflower329389
Tate322781
Pike3181104
Scott310572
Yazoo304368
Alcorn297764
Itawamba296876
Copiah293065
Coahoma289677
Simpson287484
Tippah284868
Prentiss275659
Marion265979
Wayne261341
Leake261173
Grenada254982
Covington254580
Adams245982
Newton244859
George237847
Winston225981
Tishomingo222067
Jasper219748
Attala213373
Chickasaw204857
Holmes186471
Clay182454
Stone179131
Clarke176876
Tallahatchie175540
Calhoun163230
Yalobusha158836
Smith158634
Walthall130543
Greene129433
Lawrence126323
Noxubee125933
Montgomery125542
Perry125138
Carroll120826
Amite120141
Webster113432
Jefferson Davis105432
Tunica102525
Claiborne101330
Benton97225
Kemper95226
Humphreys94332
Franklin81923
Quitman78916
Choctaw72817
Jefferson64828
Wilkinson64727
Sharkey49617
Issaquena1686
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 519071

Reported Deaths: 10712
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson754131487
Mobile37774798
Madison33868494
Tuscaloosa25283443
Montgomery23969565
Shelby23112238
Baldwin20638300
Lee15524165
Calhoun14286311
Morgan14140268
Etowah13664345
Marshall11957219
Houston10383278
Elmore9994200
Limestone9814147
Cullman9475188
St. Clair9429234
Lauderdale9218227
DeKalb8747181
Talladega8060171
Walker7092275
Jackson6755110
Autauga6727103
Blount6488135
Colbert6205130
Coffee5401112
Dale4768110
Russell428938
Franklin419982
Chilton4083109
Covington4053114
Tallapoosa3893146
Escambia388074
Dallas3527149
Chambers3500122
Clarke346360
Marion3066100
Pike305875
Lawrence295395
Winston272372
Bibb256458
Marengo248661
Geneva245875
Pickens232959
Barbour224955
Hale218775
Butler212366
Fayette208960
Henry187844
Cherokee182044
Randolph176941
Monroe171540
Washington164038
Macon154848
Clay149454
Crenshaw149357
Cleburne146041
Lamar139334
Lowndes136453
Wilcox124327
Bullock121340
Conecuh109028
Perry107926
Sumter102932
Coosa99328
Greene90734
Choctaw58724
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