Conservative Republicans in the House and Senate ripped into WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Wednesday, underlining a clash over alleged Russia hacking with President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Texans chairman apologizes for 'China virus' remark Biden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day MORE.
The same day that Trump tweeted approvingly of Assange following his appearance on Fox News, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanJuan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' Cheney allies flock to her defense against Trump challenge MORE and a cavalcade of other Republicans criticized Assange as an enemy of the United States—even as they offered rationales for the president-elect's more favorable comments.
In two tweets Wednesday morning, Trump used Assange’s Fox News interview from the previous night to cast doubt on Russia’s alleged role in hacking the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic groups.
“Why was DNC so careless?” Trump tweeted. “Also [Assange] said Russians did not give him the info!”
That skepticism is directly at odds with the consensus assessment by America’s intelligence agencies.
But Trump’s party didn’t uniformly echo his praise for Assange. GOP critics ranged from lawmakers who supported Trump’s campaign to one of his most dedicated party antagonists.
Republicans have long maligned Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who published a trove of classified military documents in 2010, accusing him of jeopardizing national security.
Ryan, who has walked the line of an uneasy truce with Trump since the GOP primary, blasted Assange in an interview with conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt as a “sycophant for Russia [who]…steals data and compromises national security.”
Arkansas Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonIt's time for Fauci to go — but don't expect it to happen Is the Navy totally at sea? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - House debt vote today; Biden struggles to unite MORE, an Army combat veteran who spoke at Trump’s convention after offering him lukewarm support in the general election, told MSNBC that he has “a lot more faith in our intelligence officers” who blame Russia for the hacks “than I do in people like Julian Assange.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThune endorses Herschel Walker in Georgia Senate race Pennsylvania Republican becomes latest COVID-19 breakthrough case in Congress McCain: Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner had 'no goddamn business' attending father's funeral MORE, a regular critic of Trump who said in December he’ll travel to Eastern Europe to investigate Russian election interference, warned Americans not to be “duped” by Assange, whom he blasted as an “accused rapist on the run.”
Even Tennessee Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTikTok, Snapchat executives to make Capitol Hill debuts Senator asks Facebook's Zuckerberg to testify at hearing on kids' safety TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat executives to testify at Senate hearing on kids' safety MORE, a Trump transition vice-chair and prominent supporter, said she doesn’t put “a whole lot of trust in Julian Assange.”
Still, Blackburn defended Trump’s general skepticism about the source of the hacks.
Wednesday’s Assange spat reflects a larger divide between Trump and others in GOP lawmakers over how to deal with the alleged Russian hacks.
While Congressional Republican party leaders have called for investigations, differing primarily on whether the investigation should be conducted existing committees, Trump has urged the country to “move on” from possible election interference.
While others in the GOP remained steadfast in opposition to Assange, some Trump supporters have followed the president-elect to shift their personal stances on Assange.
Fox News' Sean Hannity, who conducted the Assange interview, called for the WikiLeaks founder’s arrest in 2010 and blasted him for “waging his war against the U.S.” for the 2010 leak of diplomatic cables and sensitive military information.
And in a late Tuesday night Facebook post, 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin wrote a mea culpa for calling Assange an “anti-American operative with blood on his hands” in 2010. She even urged her followers to see “Snowden,” Oliver Stone’s 2016 biopic of NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Their shifts aren’t unlike Trump’s own changing opinion on Assange. Trump once proposed the “death penalty” over one WikiLeaks release during a 2010 interview unearthed by CNN.
But now Trump and a handful of allies have Assange back in their good graces.
The exiled Australian has been a prominent Trump defender from his perch in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he fled to avoid extradition to Sweden on rape and molestation charges in Sweden—as well as a potential extradition to the U.S. Assange hindered Clinton’s campaign throughout 2016 as his group released emails from top Clinton staffers that drew headline after headline.
During his Fox interview, Assange mirrored Trump’s claim that Democrats are only focusing on the hacks to delegitimize his victory. And Assange’s claim that a “very dishonest” media was “colluding” with the Clinton campaign match Trump’s own frequent attacks on the press.
Trump responded with a tweet agreeing with Assange’s assessment of the media, writing that it’s “more dishonest than anyone knows.”
Daniel Vajdich, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who previously worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill Trump’s decision to amplify Assange’s skepticism to intelligence community reports that Russian was behind the attack is a counterattack to Democrats who argue Trump would have lost to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe real reason Biden is going to the COP26 climate summit Super PACs release ad campaign hitting Vance over past comments on Trump I voted for Trump in 2020 — he proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021 MORE but for the leaks.
“The only thing that really matters to Trump right now is the fact that you have a majority of Democrats across the country who believe the outcome of the election isn’t legitimate,” he said.
That’s in part the tack the Democratic National Committee took in its statement Wednesday, where DNC national press secretary Adrienne Watson called Assange an "enemy" and slammed Trump “for “putting his own insecurities ahead of national security because he is sensitive about how he won."
But Trump’s perspective on Assange, as well as his agreement that Russia may not have been responsible for the hack, has drawn its fair share of criticism—and not just from Democrats.
“Situational ethics are never a good guide for policymaking,” said Danielle Pletka, a former Senate Foreign Relations staffer and current senior vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. “’You’re a scumbag because you stole from me but you are Robin Hood because you stole from the other guy’ doesn’t really work.”
“When you posture toward people like a scumbag like Julian Assange, you run the very real risk that, having once correctly identified him as a traitor, he will, at a point convenient to him, betray you again.”
While Trump is tweeting support of Assange now, Pletka thinks it’s unlikely that he views his Twitter feed as permanent policy, or even the last word.
America’s top intelligence officials are slated to make their case to Trump about Russia’s role in the hack on Friday.
Even that meeting has become a source of dispute, though, with Trump speculating on Twitter Tuesday that the meeting had been delayed until Friday because intelligence officials required “more time needed to build a case.” (An intelligence official countered to NBC News that the meeting had always been scheduled for Friday).
In his tweet, Trump surrounded “intelligence” with apparently mocking quotation marks.
While Assange has said his source was not connected to the Russian government, he has also claimed that the hacker or hackers known as Guccifer 2.0 are not his source. Guccifer 2.0 leaked documents from the DNC and DCCC servers to a variety of media outlets. Assange has acknowledged that the source of the Guccifer 2.0 leaks may have been Russian.
But third-party security experts question whether Assange has been disingenuous about what he knows about the attacks.
“You have to parse his words very carefully,” said Matt Tait, co-founder of the United Kingdom security firm Capital Alpha Security.
Tait notes that during the Fox News interview, Assange claimed the attack on Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s email account was simple enough that a 14-year-old could do it.
It’s technically true that a 14-year-old could conduct a one-off phishing attack of the type that ensnared Podesta, according to Tait.
In this case, however, a single person of any age is unlikely to be the culprit.
“He knows full well there’s a stronger case the attack is from Russia,” said Tait.