During the same period, Trump was denying that he had any knowledge of what WikiLeaks was doing, while at the same time praising WikiLeaks extensively. “You know, they like to say every time WikiLeaks comes out, they say this is a conspiracy between Donald Trump and Russia,” he said in Kinston, North Carolina, in October 2016. “Give me a break.”
But it was widely known that Stone was a friend of Trump’s, and Stone boasted openly about staying in touch with the candidate. Anyone paying close attention to public information could surmise that Stone was feeding information from WikiLeaks to the Trump campaign and possibly to Trump himself.
Implausible deniability paired with incriminating public statements was a common theme for the Trump campaign with regard to Russia. The country is a spectral presence in the latest Mueller indictment. In a July 2018 indictment, Mueller laid out evidence for how Russian-government agents hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Podesta and provided them to WikiLeaks. Friday’s filing shows how WikiLeaks communicated them to the Trump campaign. There’s still no public evidence that bridges the gap directly from the Trump campaign to Russia on the email dumps.
Read: Mueller just uncovered a core Russian conspiracy
Yet even at the time, it was widely held that Russia was responsible for the hacking. A private contractor hired by the DNC had blamed Russia. By the end of the campaign, Trump was also receiving briefings from U.S. intelligence pinning the attacks on Russia. Despite this, Trump continued to equivocate about blame for the hacks, suggesting they could have been the work of China or “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” Even if Trump officials hadn’t been told directly by WikiLeaks, via Stone, that the emails came from Russia, they should have known. (WikiLeaks continues to deny that Russia was its source.)
Trump was publicly courting Russia in plenty of other ways, too. He repeatedly praised President Vladimir Putin on the campaign trail and discussed the benefits of a stronger Russo-American relationship. He downplayed the importance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, suggesting he wouldn’t object as president. He hired Paul Manafort, who was widely known to be close to the Kremlin.
The most dramatic example of Trump communicating publicly with the Russians came in July 2016. On July 21, the Republican National Convention concluded. On July 22, WikiLeaks began releasing emails. In response to that, the “senior Trump Campaign official” was directed to get in touch with Stone to set up the back channel. On July 27, Trump held a press conference in which he publicly called on Russia to release emails hacked from Hillary Clinton.
“By the way, if they hacked, they probably have her 33,000 emails. I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 emails that she lost and deleted. Because you’d see some beauties there,” Trump said. “I will tell you this: Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”