The Atlantic reported on Monday that WikiLeaks, the non-profit website and organization founded by Julian Assange in 2006 that publishes leaks or otherwise censored information shielded by governments and powerful interests, had frequently corresponded with Donald Trump Jr. through direct messages on Twitter during both the presidential election and after. Some of these messages look like attempts to boost the group's brand, while others offer bizarre suggestions for Trump campaign strategies. One on December 16, for example, read: “It would be real easy and helpful for your dad to suggest that Australia appoint Assange ambassador to DC.” (Assange tweeted a tongue-in-cheek joke at Trump Jr. on November 14 saying that the “offer still stands.”)
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Wikileaks in global democracy over the last several years. While the legacy of what they’ve accomplished, from revealing the raw depravity of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to pulling back the curtain on the inner workings of the Democratic National Committee, deserves to remain intact, Wikileaks and Assange have become a case study in self-parody over the past year and a half. For a group whose entire premise was to challenge and shed light on power, Wikileaks has cozied up to the Trump administration and the far-right in a way that could be damaging to other future whistleblowers. And Assange, an accused rapist who traffics in conspiracy theories, is a disaster of a figurehead.
Dear @DonaldJTrumpJr our offer of being ambassador to the US still stands. I could open a hotel style embassy in DC with luxury immunity suites for whistleblowers. The public will get a turbo-charged flow of intel about the latest CIA plots to undermine democracy. DM me.#vault8— Julian Assange 🔹 (@JulianAssange) November 14, 2017
As national security reporter Marcy Wheeler wrote on her blog, Assange’s direct messages with Trump Jr. don’t indicate anything illegal or even successful collusion with the campaign; Trump Jr. ultimately never leaked the tax returns to Wikileaks and the group didn’t give him information in October 2016 that he asked for regarding a forthcoming leak. But the revelation that Wikileaks had groveled to Trump’s son does something way worse to the group than charges of breaking the law; it damages Wikileaks’ credibility as a fair arbiter of information, and adds fuel to the fire that it’s been facing from liberal and conservative critics that it was unwittingly used as a pawn by the right and/or Russia.
While the heel-turn of Wikileaks itself is a somewhat new development, Assange has long been a dirtbag. Since 2012, Assange has infamously taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced charges for sexual assault. The case was dropped earlier this year because, the prosecutor said, Assange’s refuge in the embassy “exhausted” “all possibilities to conduct the investigation.” The allegations, which prosecutors said they would resume investigating if Assange ever leaves the embassy, included an accusation that Assange had sex with a woman while she was sleeping. One of the women wrote in 2013 that she had faced harassment and even threats after coming forward.
While Assange no longer faces extradition to Sweden (for the time being), he remains at the Ecuadorian embassy, given that leaving the embassy would open him up to arrest by British police and extradition to the United States. Although Attorney General Jeff Sessions called Assange’s arrest a “priority” in April, The Hill reported in September that members of the “intelligence community” were worried that Trump might pardon him.
While Assange has devoted defenders on the left, he seems to be much closer to libertarian Sen. Rand Paul in his politics, telling Forbes in an interview in 2010 that he “loves markets” and describing himself as a libertarian. And although Wikileaks’ release of transcripts from Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs was one of its biggest drops last year, Trump has lined his administration with bankers from Goldman Sachs. Curiously, Wikileaks and Assange have stayed silent on that subject, except to reiterate the ties that Clinton has to the firm, even though she is out of power and by most accounts will not run for office again.
But lately, Assange has begun to indulge some of the most insidious far-right crankery. Assange and Wikileaks have more than encouraged the theory that murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich was Wikileaks’ source for the DNC hack, and even once implied that Rich’s parents were bought off. In August of last year, they offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to his killer; Rich’s own family, however, has dismissed all of this as a conspiracy theory.
Assange shares with Trump a loathing of the political and media establishment that reaches across ideological lines, although Trump himself has long been an annual-giving member of that establishment. And for all of the talk about destroying the establishment, and for how useful Assange has been from a left perspective, his political analysis — that identity politics were the true culprit of the 2016 election — reads like a diary on RedState.com, or Mark Lilla essay published in The New York Times.
“First Obama, then Trump. It's 2017 and now even whites get identity politics. It took you a long time but you finally reached everyone,” he wrote on May 11. And on August 6, he ripped off a thread about the subject, hilariously saying that Democrats “catered for non-white identity politics” in the last election.
2/ has led to turbo charged white identity politics. Since Dems catered for non-white identity politics, Trump and the GOP took hold of— Julian Assange 🔹 (@JulianAssange) August 6, 2017
3/ white identity politics. Whites are still over 60% of the voting population. As long as Democrats pander to identity politics the GOP— Julian Assange 🔹 (@JulianAssange) August 6, 2017
But in spite of Assange’s personal politics, Wikileaks could have been a powerful force in shedding light on the Trump administration, which, despite Assange’s insistence that Trump has inadvertently made his administration the “most transparent in modern history,” is actively working against its goal of fully open government. The administration has pledged to crack down on leaks and whistleblowers, and national security conservatives (like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton) and liberals (like New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez) still call for the prosecution of whistleblowers. The idea that attempts at forcing transparency on power are for partisan purposes only could have an adverse effect on the seriousness with which these leaks are taken in the future, and hurt or deter people who may want to follow in the footsteps of champions of transparency like Manning herself, and Snowden, and Jeffrey Sterling, and the whistleblowers behind the Paradise Papers and Panama Papers.
The existence of Wikileaks has been a net positive in the fight for a more open government. But that doesn’t excuse Assange’s heinous personal actions or the way his organization has cozied up to the people who are currently wielding the tools of empire in this country, including the surveillance apparatus against which Wikileaks has fought so ardently.