How Julian Assange Turned WikiLeaks Into Trump’s Best Friend

Can a lonely man in a tiny bedroom deliver a real October Surprise?
Illustration by Stephanie Davidson

Julian Assange is 45 years old and, if an old online dating profile is to be believed, roughly 6 feet, 2 inches tall. He has soft features, prematurely silver hair, and skin that seems to border on translucent. This undercooked appearance is the result of more than four years of self-imposed confinement in a tiny bedroom in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. He has little access to sunlight, few in-person companions—or really much of anything going on, except what’s on the internet.

The founder of the online publishing platform WikiLeaks was the world’s best-known activist hacker when he walked into the modest row house in 2012, applying for humanitarian asylum rather than face questioning in Sweden over accusations of rape and sexual molestation. He claimed the case had been ginned up by the U.S., which, he believes, has been secretly trying to have him extradited for much of the past decade. The U.S. opened a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks after the organization published hundreds of thousands of leaked State Department cables in 2010. Although he has not been formally charged, Assange has often implied—without much hard evidence—that the U.S. would gladly try to assassinate him.

So it wasn’t entirely surprising last week when, on the occasion of WikiLeaks’s 10-year anniversary, Assange abruptly cancelled a planned appearance on the embassy’s balcony, citing security concerns. Instead he opted to appear, Oz-like, via video at a heavily hyped press conference held in Berlin. The Oct. 4 event had been announced for the Volksbühne, a grand old playhouse that seats 800, but when guests began showing up just before 10 a.m., the entrance was locked.

The 40 or so reporters and photographers in attendance, mostly from German and international media outlets, worked their way around to the side of the theater and into a nightclub in the same building. A red lantern above the door led to a stairwell, where a young WikiLeaks staffer wearing black leather pants played the role of bouncer, extending her arms across the club's inner doorway and asking the gathering to form a line as she ticked names off a guest list. Inside, several rows of chairs had been set in front of a modest stage. A mirrored disco ball hung above, and empty beer bottles from the previous night were still sitting on the bar.

Meanwhile, around the world, WikiLeaks fans—including a motley collection of radical activists, Breitbart readers, Redditors, and alt-right pundits—tuned in via multiple livestreams and Twitter feeds for what many hoped would be the leak to end Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Wikileaks had gathered this unlikely flock over the previous two months because of its influential role in the U.S. presidential election. Starting in late July, the organization released more than 19,000 e-mails showing that the Democratic Party had secretly conspired to thwart the campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. WikiLeaks did not disclose the source of the e-mails; the U.S. government claims Russian hackers were responsible. Since posting that scoop, which led to the resignation of party chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Assange has seemed to align himself closely with the Donald Trump campaign, routinely promoting anti-Clinton memes and conspiracy theories and teasing further anti-Clinton leaks.

By the time of the anniversary event in the Berlin nightclub, many in the conservative media—and even some Trump advisers—had come to believe that a so-called October Surprise was imminent, a final blow to the Clinton campaign that would reverse their candidate’s precipitous drop in the polls, which began falling even before leaked audio from a 2005 television appearance sent the Trump campaign into crisis mode. Alex Jones, a right wing talk show host, stayed up all night to broadcast the proceedings, and Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative and Trump adviser, promised that Assange would effectively end Clinton’s campaign.

Assange participates via video link at a news conference with WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison (right) in Berlin on October 4.

Assange participates, via video link, at a news conference with WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison (right) in Berlin on Oct. 4, 2016.

Photographer: Maurizio Gambarini/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There was a screen set up at the back of the stage in the club, and following remarks from a handful of supporters, that's where Assange showed up. He almost instantly seemed to catch a glimpse of his appearance. He paused, self-consciously, to adjust his black T-shirt so that its lettering—the word “truth” in white—was fully visible.

“This is ‘truth,’” he began. “Not ‘Ruth.’”

Assange proceeded unhurriedly, quoting Voltaire and referencing postmodernism as he sketched out a "romantic ideal" of history "that perhaps doesn't belong to this time, but belongs to an older time, or perhaps a future time.” He declared that WikiLeaks was entering a new operational phase in which it would recruit volunteers via Twitter to do battle against the site’s many enemies. (Assange’s enemies list is long and varied, beginning with many of WikiLeaks' old collaborators, such as the New York Times and the Guardian, and also includes American tech companies, establishment liberals, and pretty much every sort of institution imaginable.) "We're going to need an army to defend us," he offered. "We will give an effective call to arms if the pressure increases." He spent some time promoting WikiLeaks books—on sale, at 40 percent off—and promised to publish new leaks in the near future.

Throughout the meandering presentation, the audience—including the hundreds of thousands watching Alex Jones and readers of the Drudge Report, which had promoted the event at the top of its homepage—impatiently waited for the promised blow to Clinton. “I understand there’s enormous expectation in the United States,” Assange said with a chuckle. He promised that WikiLeaks would indeed release information about the election, just not yet. "If we’re going to make a major publication in relation to the United States, we don’t do it at 3 a.m,” he said. By this point, it was around 4 a.m. in New York.

The drawn-out nonrevelation instantaneously reverberated across the Atlantic, where Jones interrupted his livestream and broke into verse, quoting the rapper Ludacris as he urged Assange to, “Move, bitch, get out the way / get out the way, bitch / get out the way.” Later, when a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter asked about Assange’s apparent affinity for Trump, he smirked.

“It’s an interesting question,” he said. “I feel a personal affinity for all human beings.”

Four years after his indoor life in the embassy began, Assange suffers from toothaches, chronic shoulder pain, poor posture, and depression. In September, Assange leaked his own medical report, in which he is quoted responding to a doctor’s question about his cluttered workspace by saying that he has stopped seeing physical things as distinct from one another, or experiencing the concept of time. “Nothing is before or after,” he tells the doctor in existential dismay. The report’s takeaway from this seemingly desperate statement: “Individuals whose movement is restricted can experience a slow unravelling of their cognitive faculties.”

Assange released these records in September, at least in part as a sort of troll aimed at Clinton amid her struggles to rebut Republican criticisms that she was too ill for the presidency. The stunt delighted a growing cohort of hard-core Trump supporters and surprised many of Assange’s old allies on the activist left. After all, Trump’s vision of returning America to an old-timey muscular greatness represents, in many ways, the antithesis of Assange’s world view.

WikiLeaks has long sought expanded privacy rights and a diminished role for the U.S. abroad—strongly opposing secret wiretaps, drone strikes, and the Guantánamo Bay prison facility. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has suggested “closing up the internet,” expanding extrajudicial killings, and making Gitmo—a longtime WikiLeaks bête noir—a permanent and expanded institution. Assange started his hacktivism career in the late 1980s and has expressed admiration for the antinuclear activists of that era; Trump has often wondered, out loud, if we shouldn’t consider using nuclear weapons more often.

None of this has seemed particularly to trouble Assange, who has mined the leaked Democratic National Committee e-mails, as well as publicly available e-mails from Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, for any meme-worthy tidbit to reinforce the case against her candidacy. He has used these finding to give cover to thinly sourced theories about Clinton’s health—in late August, he dug up an e-mail that showed that Clinton once received information about a Parkinson’s disease drug—and inventing new anti-Clinton theories out of whole cloth.

After Clinton claimed that Russian hackers had been the source of the leak, Assange deflected the allegation in part by pointing out that a low-level Democratic Party staffer, Seth Rich, had been murdered weeks earlier while walking home from a bar in Washington. Although police believe Rich was the victim of a botched robbery attempt, Assange hinted at a darker possibility: that Rich was murdered for sharing documents with WikiLeaks. “Our sources take risks,” Assange said ominously. (The Rich family criticized Assange for “pushing unproven and harmful theories about Seth's murder.”) 

In an early September interview with Fox News host and Trump adviser Sean Hannity, Assange suggested that WikiLeaks would release more damning information on Clinton before the election, sending shivers of anticipation deep into the right wing fever swamps. “It’s gonna be glorious,” wrote a Reddit commentator. The theory was bolstered by Stone, who on Aug. 8 told a group of Republican donors that he was in communication with Assange. “There’s no telling what the October surprise may be,” he said. 

WikiLeaks denied repeated requests to interview Assange. Sarah Harrison, a British journalist and a longtime WikiLeaks editor, says that the organization would publish documents damaging to Trump if it had them. “It’s not that we’re choosing publications to pick a certain line,” she says. She declined to say whether Assange has been in touch with Stone.

Even so, Assange and the Trump campaign have lately seemed to be very much in sync, with WikiLeaks operating at times as a sort of extension of the alt-right press. After a televised forum in early September, when the Drudge Report speculated that Hillary Clinton had worn an earpiece, WikiLeaks posted an earpiece-related e-mail from Clinton aide Huma Abedin. There was no mention that on the same day, Clinton had visited the United Nations, where translation earpieces are the norm, nor that the Clinton campaign denied the allegation. When Clinton collapsed after a Sept. 11th memorial service, WikiLeaks tweeted a poll, which it later deleted, asking readers to vote on the most plausible theory for what had happened. The choices did not include the campaign’s explanation—dehydration and pneumonia—but did include three made-up ones: Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and, somewhat cryptically, “Allergies and personality.”

Then, on Oct. 7, WikiLeaks released about 2,000 private e-mails from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, just minutes after the leak of Trump’s vulgar remarks caught on video in 2005. Was this an effort to blunt the damage to the Republican candidate while arming him ahead of the second debate? Podesta thought so. “Mr. Assange wanted to change the subject,” he told reporters. “He didn’t succeed in doing it.” The next week, with Trump still reeling, Assange released several additional batches of Podesta’s e-mails, promising more.

Longtime allies have generally been horrified by these developments, with friends and supporters suggesting that Assange has been so intent on playing the media that he may be in danger of losing control. “I’m not sure what to make of this turn to the alt-right,” says John Kiriakou, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who was imprisoned for telling ABC News that the government had tortured suspected terrorists. Among fellow whistleblowers and their friends, Kiriakou says, “There’s no consensus other than maybe Julian is just going nuts.” (Harrison disputes this, but not entirely. “There are big psychological pressures,” she says. “It’s difficult for him.”)

On the other hand, Assange is devilishly smart, a point that even his fiercest critics are quick to concede, and is operating with limited options. And the 2016 election has been crazy enough that a tacit alliance with Trump might not just be nuts—it might be rational.

 

Assange founded WikiLeaks, according to an early version of the website published in early 2007, as a gonzo journalistic enterprise for “principled leakers” dedicated to exposing “oppressive regimes.” The site took as its mascot Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers, a collection of classified documents detailing misconduct by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. The website opened with a spare white page with a small quotation, attributed to Ellsberg: “We were young, we were foolish, we were arrogant, but we were right.”

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Still from the video leaked under the headline “Collateral Murder,” showing soldiers arriving at the scene of the attack.

Source: WikiLeaks

Assange’s early “publications,” as he called them, were hacked documents he intercepted from a network of secret websites on the so-called Dark Web. By 2008, WikiLeaks had released a manual that had been distributed to U.S. soldiers at Gitmo, documents on the religious practices of the Church of Scientology, and the private e-mail correspondence of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Most famously, in 2010, Assange released two videos and hundreds of thousands of secret U.S. diplomatic cables, leaked by the former U.S. Army private Chelsea Manning. The most famous of Manning’s leaks was a video that Assange distributed on the web under the headline “Collateral Murder.” It shows army helicopters firing on two Reuters journalists outside of Baghdad in 2007 and later killing unarmed civilians who came to their assistance.

In the aftermath of 2010 leaks, Assange, who’d been sentenced to probation in Australia in the 1990s for his hacking, enjoyed a brief moment of something close to rock stardom, traveling the world with an entourage of left-wing admirers, digital activists, and journalists who documented his exploits. Assange believed he was being targeted for either imprisonment or assassination—to this day, he doesn’t open his blinds at the embassy—and made a great show of traveling clandestinely and speaking in code.

He also, apparently, chased women. During a brief visit to Sweden, Assange had sexual encounters with two women over the course of four days. Accounts differ as to what happened but about a week later, on Aug. 20, 2010, the two women walked into a police station in Stockholm and asked police to force Assange to take an HIV test. Swedish police issued an arrest warrant so that Assange could answer to allegations of rape and several less severe sexual crimes. He disputes that he committed rape, and the time to prosecute Assange in connection with the other allegations has now expired under Swedish statutes of limitations. Assange has characterized the investigation as part of a broader conspiracy on the part of the U.S. government to incarcerate him, extradite him, and have him killed in prison—“Jack Ruby style,” as he put it to the Guardian.  

A former WikiLeaks employee suggests that this scenario is a fantasy. “The way he is selling the situation is completely overblown,” says Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who worked at WikiLeaks for three years and later wrote a tell-all book about the organization, Inside WikiLeaks. But the rape case, and Assange’s reaction to it, undeniably fractured the group. Many stuck by Assange—the feeling among his defenders is that Assange wasn’t guilty of anything more than being a cad—but Domscheit-Berg and several other employees complained that Assange was conflating his personal legal situation with that of the organization.

Assange responded by walling himself off. Over the course of the next month, Domscheit-Berg and a number of other staffers left. Friends distanced themselves. Assange surrendered himself to British authorities in early December 2010 and spent nine days in jail in London before he was released on bail. In June 2012, after exhausting his extradition appeals, he walked into the Ecuadorian embassy. He hasn’t left since.

Assange has sequestered himself in other ways. He cut ties with his ostensible allies in the English-language media, the Guardian and the New York Times, over a series of grievances that included complaints about their journalistic practices and a critical Times profile. (The editors of both papers stood by their coverage.) He forced his employees to sign broad nondisclosure agreements that would fine them $20 million if they leaked unpublished material on their own. He accepted an advance to write an autobiography and then backed out. The book was published anyway and bombed.

As Assange focused on his personal legal problems, the pace of WikiLeaks’ publications slowed, and new leaking platforms emerged as competition. The so-called Panama Papers were leaked to the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, which enlisted the help of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The private e-mails of former Secretary of State Colin Powell were released by DC Leaks, another leak platform. Many of the datasets that Assange did publish were not exclusives but rather widely available documents. In 2013, for instance, WikiLeaks created the Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy, a vast collection of U.S. diplomatic cables, mostly from the 1970s. It’s a remarkable achievement in library science, but it doesn’t represent some grand hacker coup. Of the 2.7 million documents, roughly 2.4 million of them were made public by the U.S. government’s formal declassification process. The rest had already been leaked by Manning in 2010.

Hillary Clinton, then U.S. Secretary of State, commenting on the release of some 250,000 classified cables by Wikileaks at the State Department on November 29, 2010.

Hillary Clinton, then U.S. Secretary of State, commenting on the release of some 250,000 classified cables by Wikileaks at the State Department on Nov. 29, 2010.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

WikiLeaks has released a number of significant new documents. Many of these have been published in ways that seem, in retrospect, a bit sloppy. The DNC leaks included the private information of Democratic Party donors: names, addresses, and Social Security numbers. In July and August, WikiLeaks published what it claimed were e-mails from Turkey’s ruling AKP party but which, according to the Turkish sociologist and journalist Zeynep Tufekci, appeared to contain mostly e-mails from regular people rather than from government officials. One thing the leaked e-mails did contain: malware files that WikiLeaks had failed to scrub out and which could have put anyone who downloaded the documents at risk of being hacked. (At the press conference, Assange dismissed concerns over the malware as overblown. He also disputed allegations from Tufekci that WikiLeaks had published a dataset that contained personal information about most of Turkey’s female voters.) 

These antics helped draw a rebuke from Edward Snowden: “Democratizing information has never been more vital, and WikiLeaks has helped,” Snowden wrote. “But their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake.” WikiLeaks responded 90 minutes later with an ad hominem attack: “Opportunism won’t earn you a pardon from Clinton,” the organization tweeted.

In an interview with the New York Times on Facebook Live last month, Assange claimed that WikiLeaks employs 154 “lawyers and legal staff advisors,” and that the number of “journalistic staff and advisors” was about the same. The number of full-time staff members is likely to be much, much smaller. “It has the look of not enough people working on it,” says Domscheit-Berg, the former WikiLeaks employee turned critic. “There probably isn’t a staff to speak of.” Assange’s former acquaintances assume that he is personally responsible for the organization’s Twitter feed, which, like Trump’s own, oscillates between conventional self-promotion and totally erratic—if also entertaining—outbursts. (There is also a Twitter account for the tabby kitten Assange adopted at the embassy earlier this year, which occasionally tweets on "counterpurrveillance." During the second presidential debate, the account tweeted a video in which the cat seemed to claw a picture of Clinton and Trump.) 

Icelandic journalist and WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson speaking with media outside the Ecuadorian embassy in central London in 2012.
Icelandic journalist and WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson speaking with media outside the Ecuadorian embassy in central London in 2012.
Photographer: Andrew Cowie/AFP via Getty Images

The key players who remain in Assange’s orbit are Sarah Harrison, Kristinn Hrafnsson, an Icelandic investigative reporter, and Jacob Appelbaum, a former developer of the Tor Project, an open-source effort to allow people to browse the internet anonymously. But Hrafnsson hasn’t publicly acknowledged Assange in months, and Appelbaum was removed from Tor in June amid accusations of sexual harassment. The following month, the WikiLeaks Twitter account claimed that Appelbaum had “never been an employee or contractor” for WikiLeaks. Appelbaum, who has called the allegations of misconduct "vicious and spurious," attended the Berlin event in disguise, having grown a bushy beard and pulled the hood of his parka over his forehead inside the hot nightclub. He declined to comment for this story.

“It’s a very little circle,” says Angela Richter, a theater director and WikiLeaks collaborator who remains a friend of Assange. “It has to be.” WikiLeaks did not answer questions about its operations, though it did engage in brief e-mail exchange with a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter by way of its anonymous PR account. The WikiLeaks spokesperson, who declined to give a name, referred to a “need for funding” because of Assange’s situation at the embassy—his latest appeal in Sweden was denied in September—and because of an “extensive covert surveillance operation running out of opposing buildings, undercover cars, and expensive remote controlled robot cameras.” 

When asked to elaborate, the spokesperson declined because of a desire to avoid ceding an “informational advantage lest the UK knows what has been discovered and what has not.”

 

Early on in his captivity, Assange attempted to learn how to play poker. He was awful at reading his fellow players and poorly equipped to hide his own emotions when he tried to bluff. “He is not capable of faking stuff,” says Richter. She recalls that Assange eventually gave up looking at his opponents’ faces at all and spent the games staring exclusively at the cards on the table. “That’s when he started to win.”

Richter brings this up when I ask her to explain Assange’s apparent support of Trump. “He is shameless,” she concedes, referring to Assange’s anti-Clinton tweets. “But I think he only seems to make mistakes in the moment because he is seven or eight steps ahead.” She opposes Trump but sees Assange’s recent political advocacy as the result of a cold and totally reasonable calculation about what is best for WikiLeaks. “For him, the choice of Trump and Clinton is bad and bad,” Richter says. “Of course, he’s taking the chance to intervene. He might think Trump is terrible, but it might be more interesting to have Trump. If Hillary becomes president, it’ll all be the same.”

Put another way: Assange sees an opportunity in derailing the Clinton candidacy—a chance to reassert WikiLeaks’s relevance by helping to dent the legacy of one of the most powerful political families in America while at the same time elevating an unlikely candidate to the highest office on earth. If you’re in the business of critiquing power structures, it doesn’t really get any better than that.

Assange’s turn toward Trump has also exposed WikiLeaks to a large and previously untapped audience of conspiracy-minded, antigovernment types. “He’s going on shows like Hannity because they will have him,” says James Spione, who directed the whistleblower documentary Silenced. In Spione’s view, the Trump flirtation is a put-on, a chance to get Assange and his organization in front of viewers. “He’s being pragmatic,” Spione says. In a recent tweet, WikiLeaks claimed that its approval ratings in the U.S. were up 27 percent over the past three years, an apparent validation of the new strategy. 

Assange preparing to speak from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy on February 5, 2016 after the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has insisted that he be released.

Assange preparing to speak from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy on Feb. 5, 2016, after the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention insisted that he be released.

Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images

The idea that Assange is mugging for Trump supporters to get attention is a cynical motivation to attribute to such an idealistic fellow, but the same explanation could easily apply to CNN or any of the hundreds of other respectable media outlets that have simultaneously scolded Trump’s daily transgressions while lavishing his campaign with nonstop coverage. Trump has in turn become an expert at using outrageous statements to earn free airtime from news outlets eager for ratings and page views. Trump is now a few points away from the presidency, despite his recent troubles and the fact that he has spent almost nothing on political advertising.

Assange has said that he expects Clinton to be elected president, “almost certainly,” but the possibility of a Trump win may also be motivating his calculation about whom to support. Assange believes that the Obama administration, with then-Secretary Clinton playing a leading role, pushed for him to be investigated criminally. It’s hard to imagine Clinton, who was in charge of the State Department when Assange’s source hacked it, would pursue WikiLeaks any less vigorously than Obama has. As if to make the point, WikiLeaks recently tweeted an anonymously sourced report that claimed Clinton had once asked, “Can’t we just drone this guy?” in reference to Assange. (Clinton said she did not recall making the statement and that if she had, it would have been a joke.)

Meanwhile, Ecuador will hold a presidential election in early 2017, and the current head of state (and Assange’s main protector), President Rafael Correa, has indicated he won’t run for reelection. “That might provoke a deep fear for Assange,” says Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a former WikiLeaks contributor who is now a member of parliament in Iceland. Her theory is that Assange might worry that with Correa out, Ecuador could reject his asylum claim, effectively sending him into the arms of the U.S.. If that were to happen, Assange might prefer that the U.S. be run by President Trump rather than President Clinton.

The Trump campaign declined to say whether a Trump administration would seek to pursue Assange. But at a rally in Pennsylvania on Oct. 10, the candidate declared, “I love WikiLeaks.” In addition, a number people close to Trump have given hints that he might view Assange more favorably than Clinton. The day after the WikiLeaks press conference, Trump ally Roger Stone, who has previously referred to Assange as “a freedom fighter” and “a truth teller,” told Jones that the rape case against Assange was “a complete frame.” Stone expressed confidence that an October Surprise is still forthcoming. “This payload is coming,” he said.

There are other new friends warming to the WikiLeaks founder. Sean Hannity was especially effusive in a September interview with Assange, the first of three interview segments that aired on Hannity’s Fox News and radio programs that week. “You know, part of me in the beginning was conflicted about you,” said Hannity, who once chastised the Obama administration for failing to arrest the WikiLeaks founder. But, he added, “you have done a lot of good in what you have exposed about how corrupt, dishonest, and phony our government is.”

At the end of the interview, Hannity went even further. “I do hope you get free one day.”

(Updates with comments from Podesta in the 22nd paragraph and Trump in the 46th paragraph.)

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