Donald Trump finds an unlikely ally in Wikileaks
US Republicans now embracing the document-spilling group they once denounced
Donald Trump greets supporters at a rally in Ocala, Florida, on Wednesday, during which he urged voters to read the messages “released by Wikileaks”. Photograph: Gerardo Mora/Getty Images
In the final weeks of a dizzying US presidential campaign, Donald Trump is suddenly embracing an unlikely ally: The document-spilling group Wikileaks that Republicans denounced when it published classified State Department cables and Pentagon secrets about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Trump, his advisers, and many of his supporters are increasingly seizing on a trove of embarrassing emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign that Wikileaks has been publishing – and that US intelligence agencies said Friday came largely from Russian intelligence agencies, with the authorisation of “Russia’s senior-most officials”.
The Trump campaign’s willingness to use Wikileaks is an extraordinary turnabout after years of bipartisan criticism of the organisation and its leader, Julian Assange, for past disclosures of US national security intelligence and other confidential information.
The accusation that Russian agents are now playing an almost-daily role in helping fuel Trump’s latest political attacks on Clinton raises far greater concerns, though, about foreign interference in a presidential election. With the White House weighing its next move – from possible sanctions to covert, retaliatory cyberaction – Russia’s president Vladimir Putin insisted on Wednesday that his nation was being falsely accused.
“The hysteria is merely caused by the fact that somebody needs to divert the attention of the American people from the essence of what was exposed by the hackers,” Putin said. He did acknowledge that the disclosures were the work of an illegal hack – which is further than Trump went in Sunday’s debate. In one exchange with Clinton, the Republican candidate said: “Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia”, he said, as part of an effort to “tarnish me”.
Trump has seized on more than 6,000 emails published so far this week, apparently from the personal Gmail account of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. Based on a few emails plucked from the account, Trump and his team have accused Clinton aides of improperly receiving inside information from the Obama administration.
That stems from correspondence that shows the campaign received an update from the Justice Department about the timing of the release of Clinton’s State Department emails. On Wednesday, Trump advisers flagged others messages that, they argued, were critical of New Hampshire voters and of Catholics.
‘In the pocket of Putin’
As Trump struggles to rebound from revelations that he bragged in 2005 about his power to sexually assault women, Republican allies say he has come to believe that Wikileaks could yield a critical mass of negative and destructive information – if not a smoking gun – that drives up Clinton’s already high unfavourable ratings with voters and perhaps even derails her candidacy.
Following Trump’s wishes, his advisers have aggressively pushed the Clinton camp emails in news media briefings and cable news appearances, bringing up the hacked messages to battle back from the questions about Trump’s comments about women. But as much as Trump sees Wikileaks coming to his rescue, strategists in his own party take a dim view of its ultimate impact.
The Clinton campaign is trying its own political jujitsu with the hacks, arguing that they are more evidence that Trump is in the pocket of Putin, whom the Republican president has declined to denounce for his annexation of Crimea, his intimidation of former Soviet states that are now part of Nato, or for its abandonment last week of a nuclear arrangement with the United States.
Podesta has gone even further, saying in a statement Wednesday evening that there was “the possibility that Trump’s allies had advance knowledge of the release of these illegally obtained emails”.
Intelligence officials say that so far they have not concluded there was any such collusion, but the investigation into who got into Podesta’s emails, and how they got into Wikileaks’ hands, has just begun. Those emails began to appear Friday afternoon, just hours after the director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement attributing previous hacks to the Russian government.
Officials said on Wednesday that it may take weeks to establish whether Podesta’s emails were also hacked by the Russians – though they said the attack on his Gmail account fits the pattern of previous, Russian-sponsored email thefts.
Republicans have previously condemned Wikileaks and similarly blasted the leaks by Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor, and said they were evidence of carelessness by the Obama administration. When Snowden’s disclosures about the scope of the NSA spying were brought to light, it touched off a feverish debate over government invading people’s privacy, and many Republicans denounced Snowden as a traitor.
The emails from Podesta were also the result of an illegal hack – but of a private email account or campaign emails, not a government agency.
Praise for Wikileaks
Among the Trump supporters who have most vocally praised Wikileaks is Sean Hannity, the Fox News host who excoriated the site’s editor, Julian Assange, years ago. Republican congressman Peter King, who supports Trump, said he would not go as far as Hannity had in “rehabilitating Assange”.
Then, conflating the Wikileaks disclosures with the Snowden disclosures, he added that: “I thought what Snowden did was disgraceful, treasonous. But the reality is the information is out there, and if Hillary doesn’t deny it then to me it certainly has to be used.”
Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and a Trump supporter, said Democrats showed no compunction about using unauthorised material when it came to Trump’s 1995 tax returns, or a leaked NBC audio recording of Trump boasting about groping. Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, insisted on Wednesday that the information that Wikileaks and other outlets had made public from hacking collectives was “relevant”.
“But for this information, a number of revelations would remain secret – how Hillary Clinton really feels, how paranoid she really was about an Elizabeth Warren challenge, her ability to articulate a message that’s cohesive and credible,” Conway said in an interview.
She dismissed questions about spreading information that was stolen and in some cases unsubstantiated. “They say stuff all the time that’s not verified,” Conway said of Democrats. “This is the wild, Wild West of instantaneous information that people neither trust nor verify, they just repeat.”
Conway and the former House of Representatives speaker, Newt Gingrich, held a conference call with reporters to highlight an email from Clinton’s campaign manager, Jennifer Palmieri, which they insisted showed “bias” toward Catholics. Palmieri told reporters she did not recognise that email.
While some Republican strategists questioned the manoeuvre by Trump, the Clinton campaign seemed uncertain about how to navigate the disclosures, particularly after calling attention to the unauthorised disclosures of pages of Trump’s tax returns in the New York Times and an 11-year-old tape featuring the candidate bragging about forcing himself on women.
For the most part, the Clinton team repeatedly criticised news organisations for using hacked materials. But privately, Democrats expressed deep concern about how much more widespread the breaches could be.
Stroke of fortune
Counting on a so-called “October surprise” bombshell has never been a winning gambit for a struggling presidential nominee, and Republican pollsters say the Wikileaks emails will do little to help Trump attract more undecided voters, especially women, or reassure wavering Trump supporters.
More than anything, pollsters say, the emails will merely reinforce the views of relatively narrow numbers of people who are intensely suspicious of government. “Trump has a hardcore base,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. “They ought to spend less time figuring out how to reinforce those people and more time trying to add to his vote column.”
Trump, at a rally on Wednesday afternoon in Ocala, Florida, called the hacked campaign emails “unbelievable” and urged voters to read the messages “released by Wikileaks”. He said the emails “make more clear than ever, just how much is at stake in November and how unattractive and dishonest our country has become”.
“It tells you the inner heart,” he said. “You got to read it.” For many of Trump’s supporters, the sudden appearance of confidential Clinton campaign emails is a stroke of fortune that, they think, could improve Trump’s chances of winning on November 8th. “I think if he makes it a big deal, if he keeps on pressuring on it, it really will help,” said Diego Rielo (24), of Gainesville, Florida.
Dane Graves (47), of Dunnellon, Florida, said the email disclosures were a strategic benefit for Trump because they “reaffirmed” comments he had made as a candidate about the two-faced nature of politicians and alleged malfeasance in government.
“He’s not basing his campaign on Wikileaks – it’s only backing up what he’s been saying the whole time,” Graves said. “It’s really backing up what the people have been feeling all of this time about the corruption of government, embedded, just the trickle-down corruption.”
Some veteran Republican strategists say the Wikileaks disclosures may be heartening to Trump and his supporters, but the emails are highly unlikely to influence undecided voters in battleground states such as Ohio and North Carolina.
“There’s real nihilism in the Trump campaign right now, just determined to do anything and say anything to make this the most disgusting final weeks in a presidential campaign ever,” said Steve Schmidt, who was a senior adviser to John McCain’s campaign in 2008. “Distrust of Clinton is pretty well baked into parts of the electorate right now. But 55 to 60 percent of the country is open to a Clinton presidency and wants to see the next president get to work with Congress to help the country.”
New York Times