The Surreal Spectacle of Republicans Embracing Julian Assange & WikiLeaks
Not too long ago, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was Public Enemy Number One to many prominent conservative figures including Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, both of whom openly called for his execution for what they considered his treasonous ways.
Back when WikiLeaks was blowing the whistle on US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq and leaking classified diplomatic cables detailing the embarrassing (at best) and even criminal (at worst) deeds of the United States and many of its allies around the world, Assange was celebrated as a champion of transparency by many on the Left. Conservatives were predictably less enthusiastic about the leaks, to say the least.
“I think it’s disgraceful,” Trump said of Wikileaks in a 2010 interview with CNN. The billionaire businessman added that he believed “there should be like death penalty or something” for Assange.
“He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands,” Palin asserted in November 2010, two years after her failed vice presidential run on John McCain’s GOP ticket. The former Alaska governor said Assange should be hunted down “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.”
Trump and Palin weren’t alone in calling for Assange’s head. Former Arkansas governor and perennial Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), longtime national security expert — and current Trump deputy national security adviser pick — KT McFarland and others advocated trying Assange for treason and executing him if found guilty. Fox News hosts, from the ostensibly liberal Bob Beckel to irascible blowhard Bill O’Reilly, have said they want to see Assange dead. Sean Hannity, arguably the most reactionary Fox host, fumed in 2010 that Assange was “waging war against the US,” asking “why didn’t they arrest Assange” and “why can’t Obama do something about WikiLeaks?”
And so it seemed the Sci-Fi Channel’s New Year’s Twilight Zone marathon had been extended as I tuned in to Hannity on Fox these past few days to watch the arch-conservative’s lengthy, almost fawning interview with Assange, who the host said has “done a lot of good” by leaking Democratic National Committee emails revealing, among other things, how the DNC was in the tank for Hillary Clinton and how it actively worked to sink Bernie Sanders’ insurgent grassroots campaign. Hannity actually thanked his former enemy in a recent interview on his radio show, crediting Assange for allowing us to “see a glimpse of how corrupt, the nature, the institutions of American government and our political system are.”
“America owes you a debt of gratitude for that,” gushed Hannity, who in the TV interview repeated Assange’s claim that “a 14-year-old kid” could have hacked Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails.
Donald Trump took to his favorite communication channel, Twitter, to cite Assange’s assertion about a child being able to access Podesta’s emails and that Russia did not give him the stolen missives. Trump — who in July infamously encouraged Russia to hack Clinton’s emails — went so far as to praise WikiLeaks, which he said “has provided things that are unbelievable.”
As for Palin, the former advocate for Assange’s assassination apologized on Facebook on Tuesday for comparing the WikiLeaks founder to a terrorist, saying the “important information” about the DNC leaked during the 2016 presidential campaign “would not have been exposed were it not for Julian Assange.” Palin urged her followers to watch Hannity’s interview, and to even go see Oliver Stone’s film Snowden, a biographical thriller about that other much-maligned whistleblower who revealed, among other things, the global scale of US government surveillance. Such an endorsement would have been unimaginable even a year ago.
In an interview with Democracy Now! aired on Thursday, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept, explained the stunning shift to host Amy Goodman:
Trump’s change of heart is purely opportunistic… WikiLeaks became this year a leaker not of documents that reflected poorly on the Bush administration, but that reflected poorly on the Clinton campaign and Hillary Clinton. And as a result, Democrats went from supporting WikiLeaks and viewing them as heroic and important agents of transparency to viewing them as traitors and liars and people that ought to be convicted. And Republicans did exactly the opposite reversal, for exactly the same reasons, which is they went from viewing Julian Assange as a traitor to being a hero and an important conduit for information that the public has the right to know.
Such are the disorientingly strange days we now find ourselves living in. For generations, US conservatives have been rabidly anti-Russia, blaming Moscow for a litany of misdeeds both real and imagined, exaggerating the threat of Russian bombers, missiles, infiltrators, allies and ideology; accepting even the most dubious allegations leveled by an often paranoid and red-obsessed US intelligence community. Witness now Trump and team dissing and dismissing that same community, even as all 17 US intelligence agencies stand resolutely behind their assessment that Russia indeed hacked the election. It’s an astounding role reversal that has left many observers both domestically and abroad scratching their heads at how Trump and many of his supporters on the right seem to trust Russian intelligence and a “traitor” they once wanted hunted down and killed more than the CIA, FBI and other pillars of the US national security edifice.
It would be wildly misleading to suggest all Republicans are as smitten with Assange. “Wait, we all trust Julian Assange now? That Julian Assange? asked Jim Geraghty in The National Review, one of the most respected right-wing magazines. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) told MSNBC he has “a lot more faith in our intelligence officers… than I do in people like Julian Assange.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has been a vocal critic of Trump, warned Americans not to be “duped” by Assange. Even Trump ally and transition vice-chair Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said she doesn’t put “a whole lot of trust in Julian Assange.”
To be clear, US intelligence officials — who have a very long history of telling very big lies — have thus far offered no concrete evidence that Russia was behind the DNC hacking. But it is rare that all 17 intelligence agencies say they concur on such a hotly contentious matter (the notable unanimous assessment that Iran was not trying to develop nuclear weapons comes to mind), and hacking and other cyber-shenanigans are right in Moscow’s wheelhouse. Until more information is provided, it may be premature to categorically blame Russia for trying to influence the outcome of the election. But Trump, his team and his backers are shockingly remiss to dismiss Russian involvement, and the sight of rabid red-hating reactionaries siding with Vladimir Putin, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks over their own country’s intelligence agencies is indeed one of the most surreal spectacles of our time.