Republicans warm up to Assange


Republicans are making common cause with an old enemy: Julian Assange. 

In 2010, prominent figures in the GOP wanted the WikiLeaks founder jailed for releasing thousands of diplomatic cables leaked by former Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning.

{mosads}Onetime presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee said the leak “put American lives at risk.” Former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said Assange had “blood on his hands” and should be “hunted down.” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) called for the Australian anti-secrecy activist to be tried under the Espionage Act and asked if WikiLeaks could be designated as a terrorist organization. 

Fast-forward to 2016, and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his supporters are extolling the release of thousands of emails stolen from the personal account of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.

“Let me be clear: Thank God for Wikileaks — doing the job that MSM WON’T! #ASSANGE #wikileaks,” Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) tweeted on Monday, using an acronym for “the mainstream media.”

The emails — around 10,000 of which have already been made public so far — have contained some embarrassing revelations for Clinton.

But the emails have ignited controversy. While some Republicans see the documents as fair game, others fret at the prospect of Russia tampering in the U.S. election.

U.S. intelligence officials have said that the Russian government is behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails — also released by WikiLeaks earlier this year. The administration has made no formal attribution yet, but Moscow is suspected to be behind the theft of Podesta’s emails as well.

Praising WikiLeaks for releasing the Podesta emails, some say, could return to haunt Trump supporters. 

“Not only is it short-sighted at a political level, they are abetting attacks by a foreign power on the sovereignty of the United States — without a word of condemnation,” said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who worked as campaign manager for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential bid.

“Republicans should understand that they are as vulnerable to this as any Democrat is,” he notes.

But for some opponents of Clinton, the contents of the emails are simply too juicy to ignore — even if they were stolen by the Russian government.

While there has not yet been a blockbuster revelation that could bring down Clinton’s campaign, Republicans have seized on a number of the missives as evidence that she is untrustworthy and corrupt. 

In a set of excerpts from her paid speeches to Wall Street banks and others, revealed in the emails, Clinton refers to the need for “both a public and a private position” on controversial issues.

In another email, sent one day before a CNN presidential town hall in March, a senior Democratic Party official appeared to share a question with Clinton’s campaign.

The Clinton campaign has refused to comment on the authenticity of the emails and instead has attempted to shift the focus to the hack itself — something Republicans have cast as a diversionary tactic.

“Presidential elections make strange bedfellows. I don’t see any risk at this stage because much of what’s being put out at this stage is not being refuted by the Clinton campaign,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.

“It’s the substance of what’s in the leaks to me that’s the news. The news isn’t who leaked it,” said GOP strategist and Hill contributor Matt Mackowiak, who noted that Duncan’s remarks on Monday were nevertheless “indefensible.” 

Many see the GOP’s newfound support for WikiLeaks not only as political opportunism, but also as a reflecting the broader disillusionment with established institutions in the U.S. — specifically traditional media organizations.

“There’s a real collapse of trust in institutions, because the elites are running the institutions,” Schmidt said.

Americans’ confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has dropped to an all-time low, according to Gallup, with only 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.

On the stump, Trump regularly claims that the media treats him unfairly by reporting only attacks that will damage him and help Clinton. 

“The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary — but also at many polling places — SAD,” the GOP nominee tweeted Sunday.

But while WikiLeaks casts itself as a bastion of transparency, the shadowy organization has its own agenda.

Assange has been explicit that he believes Clinton should not be president of the United States — although he denies that he is intentionally withholding information about Trump.

He has claimed to have material on the Republican nominee, but “from a point of view of an investigative journalist organization like WikiLeaks,” it was “hard for us to publish much more controversial material than what comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth every second day.”

Assange has lived in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since 2012, avoiding a rape charge in Sweden. He has said that if he leaves the embassy to face the charge, he fears being extradited to the U.S. over his role in the Manning leaks.

Complicating the future of the organization in 2016, WikiLeaks reported Monday that Ecuador had cut off Assange’s internet connection.

According to Assange, he still has around 40,000 of Podesta’s emails yet to release. The emails continue to be released on a near-daily basis.

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