Mr. Assange splashed thousands of Democratic and Hillary Clinton campaign emails across the internet in July, October and November. Reporters wrote about the juicy tidbits even while knowing they came compliments of the Kremlin, according to a review of election dispatches.
After Mr. Stone’s indictment on Friday on a charge of lying to Congress, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pointed out the irony.
“I was a member of the campaign, which is why I know there was, as I have said a dozen times, as the president said probably hundreds of times, there was no collusion, there was no wrongdoing by the president,” Mrs. Sanders told CNN. “What I also know is that outlets just like yours, CNN, spent a significant time not only looking for information of WikiLeaks but also reporting on it. Does that mean CNN is guilty of collusion?”
The Russia connection first emerged when CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic Party, released a report on June 15, 2016. It said the party’s computers had been hacked and the culprit was Russian intelligence.
By then, U.S. intelligence knew the fuller story. Two fake sites known as DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0. were the Russian vehicles to transport stolen documents. Soon, WikiLeaks would join in.
Meanwhile, working together behind the scenes were two committed Trump partisans: Mr. Stone, a flamboyant Republican operative known for hardball campaigns, and Jerome Corsi, a right-wing conspiratorialist, author and promoter of false Barack Obama “birther” theories.
The pair, who drew disdain from many of Washington’s establishment conservatives, saw their mission as finding out when the WikiLeaks splurge would happen.
Special counsel Robert Mueller brought a seven-count indictment against Mr. Stone on Friday, charging him with lying to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence about efforts to contact WikiLeaks. He also was charged with witness tampering.
Neither Mr. Corsi nor Mr. Stone is accused of colluding with the Russian government to hack computers or distribute documents. That allegation was the principal reason that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mr. Mueller in May 2017. There is no charge they ever possessed stolen emails before they were released publicly.
Christopher Steele’s Democrat-financed, anti-Trump dossier, on which the FBI relied for its probe, asserted there was a huge conspiracy between President Trump’s campaign and Russian intelligence to interfere in the election. To date, there is no public evidence to support that sweeping charge.
Mr. Corsi was ready to plead guilty to lying to Mr. Mueller’s team but then backed out. He now is suing Mr. Mueller.
He defends his queries about WikiLeaks by saying he is a journalist who had a right to ask those questions, just like CNN and The New York Times.
As de facto Trump campaigners, observers say, Mr. Corsi and Mr. Stone should have been more cautious that summer, given the fact it became clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intelligence apparatus orchestrated the hacking.
Mr. Stone has said he rejects the charge of Russian involvement and believes it was a DNC inside job. There is no reliable evidence for that theory.
After the CrowdStrike report, the Guccifer 2.0 persona announced on his WordPress blog that he had done the cyber invasion. He released documents to prove it, including a Democratic Party opposition research paper on Mr. Trump.
If one were to believe the CrowdStrike report, then Guccifer 2.0, in effect, admitted to being a Russian agent.
Again, a logical conclusion for journalists was that Mr. Assange, who built WikiLeaks into a distribution point for highly sensitive and embarrassing government documents, was somehow tied to Moscow hackers.
“We have upcoming leaks in relation to Hillary Clinton,” he told ITV News’ Robert Peston in London. “We have emails pending publication, that is correct.”
As promised, on July 22, 2016, Mr. Assange unleashed a mother lode of Democratic Party emails. One thread showed that the Democratic National Committee conspired with the Clinton campaign to defeat her one primary rival, Sen. Bernard Sanders.
Guccifer 2.0 announced simultaneously that it was he who provided the material, creating further evidence of a Russian operation.
What followed were two more significant WikiLeaks tranches in October and November, this time featuring the personal writings of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. He had opened a basic “phishing” link that let thousands of his emails spill out.
DCLeaks also got into the act, targeting the personal emails, for example, of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. News stories that August identified DCLeaks as Russian. Like Mr. Stone and Mr. Corsi, journalists wanted Mr. Assange to tell them his next move.
Mr. Assange had appeared in August 2016 on a live Facebook interview with New York Times investigative reporter Jo Becker.
“When can we expect that?” she asked when he hinted at more Clinton emails.
In September, Fox News host Sean Hannity asked Mr. Assange, “How many batches do you think you will be releasing and how soon?”
“We might put out some teasers,” he answered.
It’s official: Russia did it
On Oct. 7, 2016, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint statement officially blaming the Russian government for hacking Democratic Party computer networks.
“The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations,” the statement read. “The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
Oct. 7, 2016, was a date for the history books — the government statement, a Washington Post report that Mr. Trump had made lewd remarks about women, and an hour later, a new batch of WikiLeaks emails, these belonging to Mr. Podesta.
The press now knew what it had suspected: WikiLeaks‘ ultimate source was the Kremlin, a U.S. adversary bent on sowing disorder in the West. But it didn’t seem to dissuade the mainstream media.
For example, the New York Times headlined an Oct. 10 story, “Highlights from the Clinton Campaign Emails.”
The next month, the Times led the front page with “New Emails Jolt Clinton Campaign in Race’s Last Days.”
“The late-Friday release came almost immediately after a devastating tape emerged of Donald Trump in 2005 talking about how being ‘a star’ entitled him to make aggressive sexual advances on women, fueling speculation that WikiLeaks is trying to tip the balance of the election,” Politico said.
On Oct. 13, USA Today offered “Four of the juiciest leaked Podesta emails” — as Mr. Assange methodically sent out batches nearly every day.
That same day, CNN went with this headline — “WikiLeaks post more John Podesta emails.”
Today, the new Russia probe question is whether Mr. Trump directed Mr. Stone to try to get a heads-up on the next WikiLeaks release. Mr. Stone, who has known the president for years and gives him advice, says he never knew for sure and relied on what Mr. Assange said in public.
On Dec. 16 last year, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s legal adviser and spokesman, appeared on ABC News’ “This Week” and answered the Roger Stone question from George Stephanopoulos.
Giuliani: No, he didn’t.
Question: Not at all?
Giuliani: No. I don’t believe so. But again, if Roger Stone gave anybody a heads-up about WikiLeaks‘ leaks, that’s not a crime. It would be like giving him a heads-up that the Times is going to print something. One the — the crime — why this thing is so weird, strange — The crime is conspiracy to hack. Collusion is not a crime, it doesn’t exist.
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