Donald Trump offered Julian Assange a pardon if he would say Russia was not involved in leaking Democratic party emails, a court in London has been said.
The extraordinary claim was made at Westminster magistrates court before the opening next week of Assange’s legal battle to block attempts to extradite him to the US, where he faces charges for publishing hacked documents. The allegation was denied by the former Republican congressman named by the Assange legal team as a key witness.
Assange’s lawyers alleged that during a visit to London in August 2017, congressman Dana Rohrabacher told the WikiLeaks founder that “on instructions from the president, he was offering a pardon or some other way out, if Mr Assange … said Russia had nothing to do with the DNC [Democratic National Committee] leaks.”
A few hours later, however, Rohrabacher denied the claim, saying he had made the proposal on his own initiative, and that the White House had not endorsed it.
“At no time did I talk to President Trump about Julian Assange,” the former congressman wrote on his personal blog. “Likewise, I was not directed by Trump or anyone else connected with him to meet with Julian Assange. I was on my own fact finding mission at personal expense to find out information I thought was important to our country.
“At no time did I offer Julian Assange anything from the president because I had not spoken with the president about this issue at all. However, when speaking with Julian Assange, I told him that if he could provide me information and evidence about who actually gave him the DNC emails, I would then call on President Trump to pardon him,” Rohrabacher added.
“At no time did I offer a deal made by the president, nor did I say I was representing the president.”
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told reporters: “The president barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he’s an ex-congressman. He’s never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject.”
“It is a complete fabrication and a total lie,” Grisham said. “This is probably another never-ending hoax and total lie from the DNC.”
Trump, however, invited Rohrabacher to the White House in April 2017 after seeing the then congressman on Fox TV defending the president.
In September 2017, the White House confirmed that Rohrabacher had called the then chief of staff, John Kelly, to talk about a possible deal with Assange, but that Kelly had not passed on the message to Trump. Rohrabacher confirmed that version of events on his blog on Wednesday.
“I told him that Julian Assange would provide information about the purloined DNC emails in exchange for a pardon. No one followed up with me including Gen Kelly and that was the last discussion I had on this subject with anyone representing Trump or in his Administration,” he wrote.
“Even though I wasn’t successful in getting this message through to the President I still call on him to pardon Julian Assange, who is the true whistleblower of our time.”
Assange appeared in court on Wednesday by videolink from Belmarsh prison, wearing dark tracksuit bottoms and a brown jumper over a white shirt.
Before Rohrabacher’s denial, district judge Vanessa Baraitser, who is hearing the case at Westminster, said the claim of a deal was admissible as evidence.
Until he was voted out of office in 2018, Rohrabacher was a consistent voice in Congress in defence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, claiming to have been so close to the Russian leader that they had engaged in a drunken arm-wrestling match in the 1990s. In 2012, the FBI warned him that Russian spies were seeking to recruit him as an “agent of influence”.
The publication of emails hacked from the Hillary Clinton campaign helped perpetuate an aura of scandal around the Democratic candidate a few weeks before the 2016 election.
WikiLeaks put them online hours after Trump had suffered an apparent public relations disaster with the emergence of a tape in which he boasted of molesting women.
Assange is wanted in America to face 18 charges, including conspiring to commit computer intrusion, over the publication of US cables a decade ago.
He could face up to 175 years in jail if found guilty. He is accused of working with the former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak hundreds of thousands of classified documents.
The extradition hearing is due to begin at Woolwich crown court on Monday, beginning with a week of legal argument. It will then be adjourned and continue with three weeks of evidence scheduled to begin on 18 May.
The decision, which is expected months later, is likely to be appealed against by the losing side, whatever the outcome.
Assange has been held on remand in Belmarsh prison since last September after serving a 50-week jail sentence for breaching his bail conditions while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
He entered the building in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex offence allegations, which he has always denied and were subsequently dropped.
Assange’s claims of a deal emerged a day after Trump granted clemency to a string of high-profile figures convicted on fraud or corruption charges, including the former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and the “junk bond king” Michael Milken. Trump has not excluded pardoning Roger Stone, a former aide who was convicted in November of obstructing a congressional investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race, and in particular for lying to investigators about his relationship with Assange and WikiLeaks.
Stone once boasted that he had dinner with Assange but later said the claim was a joke.
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