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A year before Donald Trump won the White House, Julian Assange told his WikiLeaks colleagues in a group chat on Twitter that then-candidate Hillary Clinton seemed like a “bright, well connected, sadistic sociopath.” It’d be better if Republicans seized office, he concluded.
Months later, in March 2016, WikiLeaks, founded by Assange, published a searchable archive of Clinton’s emails, sourced by a public records request that mined Clinton’s private email server from June 2010 to August 2014.
A few months after that, in June 2016, WikiLeaks would get a Twitter direct message from @DCLeaks, an account Russians used to disseminate information, according special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, released Thursday. The account had already started posting stolen emails.
"You announced your organization was preparing to publish more of Hillary's emails. We are ready to support you,” @DCLeaks wrote to WikiLeaks, according to the Mueller report. “We have some sensitive information too, in particular, her financial documents. Let's do it together. What do you think about publishing our info at the same moment? Thank you."
What would come next — Russia hacking the Democratic National Committee, and WikiLeaks dumping private emails from the Clinton campaign — would dominate the rest of the election’s news cycle.
In part, it would also lead to the two-year Mueller investigation into whether the Trump administration colluded in Russia’s efforts to sway the election.
While WikiLeaks’ role in distributing stolen emails was well known, the particulars of Assange’s conversations with Russian intelligence officers weren’t clear until Attorney General William Barr released the Mueller report on Thursday.
Here’s what we learned about WikiLeaks and Assange Thursday:
Talking with Russia
In the summer of 2016, WikiLeaks was in touch with a Russia front for GRU, the persona Guccifer 2.0, and had urged its Twitter account to send any stolen emails to WikiLeaks for greater impact, rather than just posting them to the GRU-operated Twitter accounts.
At the time, Assange had internet access from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he'd been staying in asylum for years. (He was dragged out of that embassy and arrested last week on charges of breaking into U.S. government computers and conspiring with former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to and distribute classified documents.)
On July 6, WikiLeaks reached out to Guccifer 2.0 via Twitter DM: "if you have anything hillary related we want it in the next two days preferable,” WikiLeaks said, mentioning that the Democratic National Convention was happening soon and Clinton would “solidify Bernie supporters behind her after.”
"ok … i see,” WikiLeaks responded, according to Mueller.
Russia’s GRU, in an effort to influence the presidential election, then began to transfer documents they stole from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, then-chairman of the Clinton campaign.
In mid-July, WikiLeaks received an email with the subject line “big archive.” A few days later — three days before the Democratic National Convention — the organization released 20,000 emails and documents hacked and stolen from the DNC.
While it’s not clear whether WikiLeaks participated in that now-infamous DNC hack, Mueller’s investigation revealed that WikiLeaks sought to spread conspiracies about where they got the information, obscure whether they knew it came from Russia, and release documents at times that seemingly benefited Trump by consuming the news cycle.
Assange spread conspiracies about Seth Rich
In July 2016, shortly before WikiLeaks released the hacked emails, a 27-year-old DNC staffer, Seth Rich, was shot and killed near his home in D.C. Police said he was likely the victim of a robbery gone wrong, but Assange started falsely implying his death was connected to the stolen emails.
The WikiLeaks Twitter account posted on August 9 that it had “decided to issue a US$20k reward for information leading to conviction for the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich." And Assange said in an interview with Fox News justifying the reward that he was “interested in anything that might be a threat to alleged WikiLeaks sources.”
"We're not saying that Seth Rich's death necessarily is connected to our publication”
"We're not saying that Seth Rich's death necessarily is connected to our publication,” Assange said. “That's something that has to be established. But if there's any question about a source of WikiLeaks being threatened, then people can be assured that this organization will go after anyone who may have been involved in some kind of attempt to coerce or possibly, in this case, kill a potential source."
U.S. intelligence officials publicly stated that Russia was behind the DNC hack, which Assange vehemently denied. Rich’s family insisted he wasn’t WikiLeaks’ source, and Mueller wrote “the statements about Rich implied falsely that he had been the source of the stolen DNC emails.”
"As reports attributing the DNC and DCCC hacks to the Russian government emerged, WikiLeaks and Assange made several public statements apparently designed to obscure the source of the materials that WikiLeaks was releasing," Mueller wrote in his report.
As WikiLeaks itself noted, however, the report also obscures quite a lot about what Mueller knew about Assange or his organization. The organization saw what was published as a vindication of its actions, though.
“WikiLeaks has always been confident that this investigation would vindicate our groundbreaking publishing of the 2016 materials, which it has,” the organization said in a tweet Thursday. “We disapprove of the large redactions which permit conspiracy theories to abound. Full transparency please.
Cover: Julian Assange arrives at Westminster Magistrates' Court in London, after the WikiLeaks founder was arrested by officers from the Metropolitan Police and taken into custody following the Ecuadorian government's withdrawal of asylum. (Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)