President Trump claimed ignorance Tuesday when asked about Julian Assange, offering little insight into his existing stance on the embattled WikiLeaks publisher amid new details emerging about the government’s case against him.
“I don’t know anything about him, really,” Mr. Trump said in response to a shouted question about the WikiLeaks publisher.
“I don’t know much about him. I really don’t,” Mr. Trump told reporters outside the White House prior to departing for Mar-a-Lago for Thanksgiving.
The president’s comment was his first public remark about the Australian-born WikiLeaks founder since a court filing revealed last week that the Department of Justice has charged Mr. Assange under seal.
Two years ago, Mr. Trump repeatedly praised WikiLeaks while running for office on account of the website’s role in releasing emails during his White House campaign damaging to Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton. During the last month of the 2016 election, Mr. Trump referenced WikiLeaks about 137 times during campaign rallies, debates, interviews, speeches and social media posts, according to Politifact, a nonprofit fact-checking service currently operated by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
“I love WikiLeaks!” Mr. Trump said repeatedly while campaigning.
The federal government has since concluded that Russian hackers sourced Democratic emails and other stolen material leaked by outlets including WikiLeaks during the race as part of a broader, state-sponsored interference campaign authorized by President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Assange, 47, became the target of a Justice Department investigation after WikiLeaks published classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents in 2010. He entered the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012 seeking asylum, and he has stayed inside ever since instead of facing arrest upon existing.
British authorities issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Assange shortly after he entered the Ecuadorian Embassy, and U.S. prosecutors indicated in a recent court filing that he has been secretly charged under seal.
Charges and an arrest warrant “would need to remain sealed until Assange is arrested in connection with the charges in the criminal complaint and can therefore no longer evade or avoid arrest and extradition in this matter,” federal prosecutors wrote in a court filing spotted last week. The Justice Department has since stated that the filing was made in error.
Mr. Trump’s claim about knowing little about Mr. Assange clashes with his previous praise for WikiLeaks, as well as criticisms from within his White House. Jeff Sessions, the attorney general until earlier this month, previously called arresting Mr. Assange a “priority” for the Justice Department, and Mike Pompeo, Mr. Trump’s former CIA director-turned-secretary of state, has repeatedly categorized WikiLeaks as a hostile intelligence service akin with al Qaeda.
Indeed, Mr. Assange served at the helm of WikiLeaks when the outlet began publishing a trove of CIA hacking tools in March 2017, merely two months into Mr. Trump’s administration. The Justice Department has since charged Joshua Schulte, a former CIA computer coder, with related crimes including espionage.
The Justice Department declined to comment on Mr. Trump’s remarks. Representatives for neither WikiLeaks nor nor the CIA immediately returned messages seeking comment.
Ecuador granted Mr. Assange political asylum and citizenship in 2012 and 2017, respectively. The current administration in Quito has repeatedly raised concerns about his ongoing residency, however, potentially paving the way for his possible eviction and extradition.
Ecuador’s attorney general said last month that British official have repeatedly promised not to extradite Mr. Assange to any country where he could face the death penalty if convicted.