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Trump Praises WikiLeaks Founder In Debate Over Russian Hacking

Jan 5, 2017
Originally published on January 5, 2017 4:38 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The very first questions of the witnesses at today's hearing was not about Russia. It was about Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. The website has posted thousands of Democratic officials' emails among other private documents.

Joining us now for more on Julian Assange's role in this saga is NPR national security correspondent David Welna. And David, give us some context for this question about Assange.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Ari, that question came from the Republican Committee Chairman John McCain, and it appears to have been prompted by a tweet from Donald Trump earlier this week. In it, Trump noted that Assange denied having gotten his information from the Russians.

But instead of going after Trump for seeming to side with Assange rather than the entire U.S. intelligence community, McCain pressed Director of National Intelligence Clapper on whether Assange should be given any credibility. Clapper told McCain he should not, and later in the hearing, he elaborated on why.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES CLAPPER: He has, in the interest of ostensively openness and transparency, exposed, and his prior exposures put people at risk by his doing that. So I don't think those of us in the intelligence community have a whole lot of respect for him.

WELNA: And I should add that the Justice Department does have an open investigation of WikiLeaks, though it has not brought any charges against Assange.

SHAPIRO: The antipathy of U.S. officials towards Julian Assange and WikiLeaks stretches back for years. Remind us why.

WELNA: Well, you know, it's because WikiLeaks has been leaking officially secret information for a decade now, starting out with video footage shot from a U.S. Apache attack helicopter showing American troops killing 18 people in Iraq in 2007, including two Reuters reporters. It was WikiLeaks that posted the millions of documents that Chelsea Manning took as an Army soldier seven years ago.

In fact, in a video that CNN dug up this week that same year, Trump was asked by a FOX radio host what he thought of WikiLeaks. Here's Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I think it's disgraceful.

BRIAN KILMEADE: You do think it's disgraceful.

TRUMP: I think there should be, like, death penalty or something.

WELNA: Two years after Trump said that, Assange took refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London after Swedish authorities sought to question him about charges of sexual misconduct, and he's been there ever since.

SHAPIRO: And there has been this interesting twist recently. Fox News host Sean Hannity talked with Assange earlier this week at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. It seems like Assange has become something of a hero to certain conservatives.

WELNA: Well, it would seem he has. In that interview, Hannity cast doubt not on WikiLeaks but on the insistence by President Obama that Russia directed the email hacking. Here's part of their exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEAN HANNITY: You're saying that Russia did not give you this information. He is very closely suggesting that in fact they did, and he's wrong. Is - so my question is, does he know he's wrong? From your perspective - he has to know.

JULIAN ASSANGE: He's playing games.

HANNITY: He's playing games.

ASSANGE: He's playing games.

HANNITY: He's dishonest - fair? Is he lying to the American people?

ASSANGE: He's acting like a lawyer instead of being honest.

WELNA: And Trump weighed in again today on this brouhaha with another tweet that reads, quote, "the dishonest media like saying that I am in agreement with Julian Assange - wrong. I simply state what he states."

SHAPIRO: So a divide here within the Republican Party - where are other Republicans coming down in this Trump-Assange dynamic?

WELNA: This is clearly an awkward subject for GOP leaders who have been no friends of WikiLeaks or Assange in the past, but they seem determined to defend the legitimacy of Trump's election. So we don't hear much questioning of Assange at today's hearing from Republicans other than McCain.

It was Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill who delivered the most stinging denunciation of Trump's apparent siding with Assange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I think it should bring about a hue and cry. No matter whether you're Republican or a Democrat, there should be howls. And mark my word. If the roles reversed, there would be howls from the Republican side of the aisle. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

CLAPPER: Thank you for that nonpartisan comment.

(LAUGHTER)

WELNA: Right because keeping this whole discussion about Assange, Trump and the Russians nonpartisan is probably too much to hope for, especially on Capitol Hill.

SHAPIRO: NPR national security correspondent David Welna - thanks, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.