When a court filing in Virginia last November inadvertently revealed that Julian Assange faces unspecified criminal charges in the United States, Donald Trump had nothing to say. He’s had almost nothing to say about Assange since being elected president. But while running for president, Trump couldn’t stop talking about WikiLeaks.
At the time, Assange’s organization was acting as an arm of Russian intelligence, releasing hundreds of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee, and timing the dumps for maximum benefit to Trump: tipping off Trump’s crony Roger Stone, disrupting the Democratic National Convention, distracting the press by publishing a cache of emails 29 minutes after the Access Hollywood video surfaced. Assange became a hero to the right-wing media, hailed as a brave oracle by Sean Hannity. Trump could hardly believe his good fortune. “WikiLeaks! I love WikiLeaks!” he shouted to a cheering crowd in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on October 10, 2016. By one count, Trump mentioned Assange’s organization at least 164 times in the last month of the campaign.
By the month of his inauguration, the president-elect was backing away: “The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange—wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people …” Then, as president, Trump went silent on WikiLeaks—while his intelligence agencies concluded that Russia had orchestrated the leaks to help him get elected, and his CIA director called WikiLeaks “a nonstate hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia” and Assange a “narcissist.” Then, in November 2018, came the accidental revelation that Assange has been charged in a U.S. federal court—perhaps for the same leaks that Trump, now quiet on the subject, once found so helpful.
If it were just dumb luck that landed WikiLeaks in the Trump camp, then the only question would be how Republicans became so unprincipled that they would welcome the political help of avowed enemies of American democracy. But it’s always a mistake to explain Trump’s motives as sheer opportunism. In fact, the lift from WikiLeaks wasn’t dumb luck, and more than self-interest led to the embrace between Trump and Assange. For years, WikiLeaks was considered politically on the left, the darling of Western progressives. Then why did it organize its releases to inflict the greatest damage on Hillary Clinton? Why not go after Trump instead? Or, at least, Trump too? What made WikiLeaks a hero to Fox News and the American right?
The answer lies in one of the weirdest inversions of the past few years: Trump and Assange turned out to be second cousins. WikiLeaks and the Republican Party are distant ideological allies. They have common enemies. They use similarly nihilistic tactics toward similarly antidemocratic ends. In that dark place where the extremes meet, they benefit by undermining the same institutions. They despise the same mainstream press and the same nefarious “deep state.” Their supporters hate the same people. They hate liberals, and liberalism.
Four or five years ago, a few writers looked into the politics of Assange and two other famous radical leakers, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, and made a strange discovery: Many of their views shaded toward the farther reaches of the right. Their greatest animus seemed to be reserved for the Democratic Party and The New York Times. They had friendly things to say about the ultraconservative libertarian Ron Paul and the Republican Liberty Caucus. Assange eventually became an open mouthpiece of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. Snowden, after leaking thousands of secret documents to Greenwald and Laura Poitras, became the ward of and occasional apologist for the autocratic regime in Moscow. After the 2016 election, when reporters began to uncover interference by Russian intelligence, in concert with WikiLeaks, on Trump’s behalf, Greenwald used his wide influence to denounce and mock the very idea.
Defenders of the radical leakers said that their politics didn’t matter—what mattered was the dirty doings of the surveillance state that the leakers exposed. It turned out that both things mattered. And now that we’re living in Trump’s America, in what looks more and more like Putin’s world, it’s possible that the politics matters more.