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Assange Lawyers Say Trump Offered a Pardon If He ‘Played Ball’

February 20, 2020by Ellen Milligan, Bloomberg News (TNS)
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange gestures from the window of a prison van as he is driven into Southwark Crown Court in London on May 1, 2019, before being sentenced to 50 weeks in prison for breaching his bail conditions in 2012. A British judge on Wednesday sentenced WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to 50 weeks in prison for breaching his bail conditions in 2012. Assange took refuge in Ecuador's London embassy to avoid extradition to Sweden and was only arrested last month after Ecuador withdrew his asylum status. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

LONDON — Julian Assange’s lawyers told a London court that they will provide evidence that U.S. President Donald Trump was prepared to offer the WikiLeaks founder a pardon if he “played ball” about leaks of Democratic National Committee emails.

At a preliminary hearing Wednesday, Assange’s lawyer Edward Fitzgerald asked the court to allow more witness statements during the extradition hearing that will start next week. The new information includes a witness statement by Jen Robinson, another of Assange’s lawyers, that deals with the alleged offer made by then-U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, he told the court.

The witness statement will address “Mr. Rohrabacher going to see Mr. Assange, and saying on instructions of the president, offering pardon or some other way out if Mr. Assange played ball and said the Russians had nothing to do with” the leaks, Fitzgerald said.

During the 2016 campaign, Wikileaks published a series of DNC emails damaging to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton that U.S. intelligence believes were hacked by Russia as part of its effort to influence the election.

Assange is facing U.S. charges that he conspired to obtain and disclose classified documents passed to him by former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. Those documents, including 90,000 Afghanistan war-related activity reports, 400,000 Iraq war-related reports and 250,000 State Department cables, were published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011.

The White House on Wednesday denied a pardon had ever been offered to Assange.

“The President barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he’s an ex-congressman,” Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham 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.”

But Rohrabacher offered a more nuanced account in a statement he issued later Wednesday. Though the former Republican congressman said he never spoke to Trump about Assange, he said he did raise the possibility of a pardon in a meeting with the WikiLeaks founder.

“I told him that if he could provide me information and evidence about who actually gave him the DNC emails, I would then call on President Trump to pardon him,” Rohrabacher said. “At no time did I offer a deal made by the President, nor did I say I was representing the President.”

Rohrabacher said he later told then-White House chief of staff John Kelly that Assange was willing to provide information about the hacked DNC emails in exchange for a pardon. No one followed up with him, Rohrabacher said.

Trump has shown a willingness to grant pardons to political allies and well-connected individuals convicted of white-collar crimes. He issued a slew of such clemencies on Tuesday, including to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted of public corruption in 2011 and was serving a 14-year sentence, and financier Michael Milken, who was convicted of securities fraud in 1990 and served 22 months in prison. Milken’s pardon in particular was backed by many longtime Trump allies.

Rohrabacher, who represented a district in California’s Orange County from 1988 until he was defeated by Democrat Harley Rouda in 2018, was known as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strongest defender in Congress. Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told colleagues in 2016 that he thought both Trump and Rohrabacher might be on Putin’s payroll, though he later said he was joking.

Trump strongly supported Rohrabacher in his reelection bid.

Assange has been in London’s Belmarsh prison since he was evicted in April from the Ecuadorian embassy where he had been given refuge for several years after skipping bail to avoid questioning in a Swedish sexual-assault case. That case was dropped in November after Swedish prosecutors said the allegations had been weakened as the memories of witnesses faded.

Assange participated in the hearing via video link and spoke only to confirm his name and date of birth. His extradition trial will begin next week before adjourning until May for a further three-week hearing.

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Peter Jeffrey contributed to this report.

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©2020 Bloomberg News

Visit Bloomberg News at www.bloomberg.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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