LONDON—A lawyer for Julian Assange has claimed in court that President Donald Trump offered to pardon Assange if the WikiLeaks founder agreed to help cover up Russia’s involvement in hacking emails from the Democratic National Committee.
Assange’s lawyers said on Wednesday that former Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher offered Assange the deal in 2017, a year after emails that damaged Hillary Clinton in the presidential race had been published. WikiLeaks posted the stolen DNC emails after they were hacked by Russian operatives.
The claim that Rohrabacher acted as an emissary for the White House came during a pre-extradition hearing in London.
Assange has argued that he should not be extradited to the U.S. because the American case against him is politically motivated. He spent almost seven years hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in Central London claiming that he would be jailed in the U.S. if he wasn’t granted asylum. He was kicked out of the embassy last year.
His lawyers told the court that Trump’s alleged offer to pardon Assange proved that this was no ordinary criminal investigation.
Edward Fitzgerald, who was representing Assange in court, said he had evidence that a quid pro quo was put to Assange by Rohrabacher, who was known as Putin’s favorite congressman.
Fitzgerald said a statement produced by Assange’s personal lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, included a description of “Mr. Rohrabacher going to see Mr. Assange and saying, on instructions from the president, he was offering a pardon or some other way out, if Mr Assange... said Russia had nothing to do with the DNC leaks.”
Rohrabacher weighed in on Wednesday afternoon, insisting he never spoke to Trump about Assange prior to his personally-funded “fact finding mission” to London. He said he told Assange that he would “call on” Trump to pardon him if he was able to say who gave him the hacked emails.
“I was not directed by Trump or anyone else connected with him to meet with Julian Assange,” he said in a statement. “At no time did I offer Julian Assange anything from the President because I had not spoken with the President about this issue at all.”
Rohrabacher said he spoke briefly with then chief of staff John Kelly after the trip to let him know that Assange would provide information about the hacked DNC emails in exchange for a pardon. “No one followed up with me including Gen. Kelly and that was the last discussion I had on this subject with anyone representing Trump or in his Administration,” he said.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who is presiding over the pre-trial hearing in Westminster Magistrates’ Court, said the allegation would be admissible during Assange’s extradition hearing, which is due to begin next week.
If Assange appears in court in the U.S., he will face 18 charges including conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, which could total a prison sentence of 175 years.
On Twitter, WikiLeaks’ verified account claimed there were more “bombshells” to come in the court hearing.
Two months after Rohrabacher’s trip to visit Assange, the Wall Street Journal reported that he was trying to arrange a deal for Trump to pardon Assange.
The White House confirmed at the time that Rohrabacher had spoken to Kelly about the plan to free Assange, but it was not clear if Trump had personally spoken to Rohrabacher either before or after his mission to London.
In 2018, Rohrabacher told The Intercept that he had been blocked from discussing the plan with the president because Kelly and other White House staffers were scared it would look like collusion.
Rohrabacher, who lost his California re-election fight in 2018, has been accused of helping push Kremlin lines in the U.S. in the past. A few months before he went to London to meet Assange, his staff director was ousted after a report by The Daily Beast exposed close links between Russia and Rohrabacher.
The congressman had worked with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met Trump’s campaign team at the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting, part of a lobbying operation designed to promote Kremlin aims in Washington.
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham on Wednesday denied that Trump played any role in the offer of a pardon. “The President barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he’s an ex-congressman,” she said in a statement. “He’s never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject. It is a complete fabrication and a total lie. This is probably another never ending hoax and total lie from the DNC.”