Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, remains holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London after claiming asylum. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
How did WikiLeaks go from darling of the liberal left and scourge of American imperialism to apparent tool of Donald Trump’s divisive, incendiary presidential campaign?
Thursday brought another WikiLeaks dump of nearly 2,000 emails hacked from the Hillary Clinton campaign, allegedly by Russians. As usual, they were inside-the-beltway gossip rather than game-changing: the campaign tried to push back the Illinois primary, believing it would make life harder for moderate Republicans.
That has not stopped Trump trying to make hay from the leaked emails and deflect attention from allegations of sexual harassment against him. “Very little pick-up by the dishonest media of incredible information provided by WikiLeaks,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “So dishonest! Rigged system!”
If Trump leaks are OK and Clinton leaks aren’t, there’s a problem
Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street banks were apparently revealed in an email dump last Friday, just minutes after the release of a video in which Trump was caught boasting about groping women – timing that many felt was more than just chance. This follows a hack in July designed to embarrass Clinton on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.
The seeming alliance between Trump and WikiLeaks is an astonishing role reversal. In 2010 it was lauded by transparency campaigners for releasing, in cooperation with publications including the Guardian, more than a quarter of a million classified cables from US embassies around the world. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange became a hero to many.
At the time, Republican politicians expressed outrage at WikiLeaks, but now some are seizing on its revelations as potential salvation for Trump’s ailing candidacy. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, took part in a media conference call about an email that purportedly showed Clinton campaign mocking Catholics.
Conversely, liberal activists have expressed dismay at the hack of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email account and the calculated timing of the release. Neil Sroka, spokesperson for the pressure group Democracy for America, said: “There is a huge difference between risotto recipes in John Podesta’s emails and the Pentagon Papers. The news value of these Podesta emails is fairly limited and the activist value is even less.”
Sroka added: “WikiLeaks is like the internet. It can be a force for good or a force for bad. Right now it is propping up a candidate running the most hateful campaign in modern times.”
Last week US intelligence officials blamed Russia for previous hacks. It is not yet known whether Podesta’s emails were hacked by the Russians, but US officials say the attack fits the same pattern. Russian president Vladimir Putin has denied the allegation.
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told reporters on Thursday: “The Department of Homeland Security took the unprecedented step of saying ... beyond any doubt that this hack and then the leaking of the emails was perpetrated by the Russian government for the purpose of intervening in the election and trying to affect the outcome in favor of Donald Trump. This is getting closer and closer to the Trump campaign itself.”
All of which raises the question: do Assange, Putin and Trump form a triangle? Are they in communication with each other or merely exploiting a coincidence of interests?
Trump has praised Putin and numerous links with Russia have emerged this year. But on Wednesday he denied any business interests beyond staging Miss Universe there. He has contradicted earlier statements about knowing Putin.
‘I’m a gentleman’: Trump menaces Clinton with imposing presence and brash insults
But some observers argue that Assange’s war on Clinton is personal: she was secretary of state at the time of the diplomatic cables leak. Her perceived secrecy and hawkish foreign policy represents the antithesis of his anti-US imperialist worldview. The capricious, nihilistic, non-ideological Trump might seem like a kindred spirit by comparison.
Alina Polyakova, deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, said: “My impression of Julian Assange is that he sees US hegemony in the international world order as the biggest problem facing us today. In his attempt to bring ‘transparency’, he ends up siding with the very regimes that deny transparency and human rights. That’s the irony of my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
She added: “I think the Russian government is in fact using WikiLeaks: the connection seems pretty clear to me. Is the Trump campaign tied to WikiLeaks? That’s hard to say but I would be surprised if there’s no coordination.”
Russia has uncomfortable associations for WikiLeaks. In 2010 its point man there, Israel Shamir, was exposed as an antisemite and Holocaust denier. A website, israelshamir.com, carries numerous articles, one of which comments: “Ms Clinton decided to blame her spectacular lack of success on Putin, as well. If she were honest, she’d admit that she is unpopular, even among her own milieu.”
In an email, Shamir denied that Assange is coordinating with Russia. “The problem is that incredible revelations of emails are totally suppressed by the Clintonesque media,” he wrote. “Instead of discussing Clinton’s hate to ordinary Americans, Clinton’s order to assassinate Assange etc, you discuss whether Russians are involved. Shame!”
Assange remains holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London after claiming asylum, where he’s been for four years. Two women in Sweden have accused him of rape and other sexual offences, which he denies, citing a wider conspiracy. Assange has expressed fears that, if extradited to Sweden, he would be in danger of being sent to the US, where he thinks he could face the death penalty.
A former associate of Assange, who did not wish to be named, noted that there will be presidential elections in Ecuador in 2017 and the current leader, Rafael Correa, has stated that he will stand aside after 10 years in office. This could make Assange feel uncertain about his future protection.
“I believe he is basically hoping that Trump will be lenient on him,” the former associate said. “It’s about Julian Assange. I feel he’s just desperate and it’s a shame.”
The site has lost its halo in the eyes of what it used to be its core constituency, the ex-colleague added. “All the lefties were WikiLeaks softies. Now they are getting a different perspective. It’s obvious Julian Assange has lost his ability to be neutral.”