Members of the 2016 Trump campaign had a series of contacts with WikiLeaks and people close to its operation regarding leaked Clinton campaign emails, even preparing a press strategy ahead of their release, according to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
In the report, released Thursday, Mueller also found that members of Trump’s campaign repeatedly sought to acquire Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails at the direction of Donald Trump, specifically campaign staffer and national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The contacts between WikiLeaks and Trump’s advisers, some of which have been previously reported, provide further evidence that the campaign was aware of WikiLeaks’ possession of compromising information on Clinton.
The report cites former Trump campaign official Rick Gates, who told Mueller’s team that “by the late summer of 2016, the Trump Campaign was planning a press strategy, a communications campaign, and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks.”
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Gates also claimed then-candidate Trump told him that “more releases of damaging information would be coming,” but the timeframe for that conversation was redacted in the report.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, also told Mueller’s team that he had spoken with Trump about WikiLeaks, though the content of that conversation was also redacted.
In a written response to Mueller’s questions, the president distanced himself from WikiLeaks, writing that he "did not recall being aware" of any communication between WikiLeaks and anyone working on his campaign, though he “was aware that WikiLeaks was the subject of media reporting and campaign-related discussion at the time.”
Last week, following the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Trump said he knew “nothing” about the organization.
The report also details direct communications between the president's son Donald Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks before the election. In Twitter direct messages, WikiLeaks alerted Trump Jr. to an anti-Trump website and passed along links to a website alleging Hillary Clinton had advocated using a drone against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
According to the report, Trump Jr. "responded that he already 'had done so,' and asked, 'what's behind this Wednesday leak I keep reading about?'" WikiLeaks did not appear to respond.
In October 2016, WikiLeaks messaged Trump Jr. that it was "great to see you and your dad talking about our publications," and suggested he and candidate Trump tweet a link to the WikiLeaks search tool built for digging through the hacked emails. Trump Jr. tweeted a WikiLeaks link two days later.
The special counsel’s office determined that hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta were transmitted from a Russian-government proxy, Guccifer 2.0, to WikiLeaks on July 14, 2016.
The report does not resolve the question of coordination between the campaign and WikiLeaks’ timed release of hacked emails from Podesta. The report does note, however, that the hacked emails were released on Oct. 7, the same day as the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump was heard making vulgar boasts about women.
The report adds “the release of the documents was designed and timed to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election and undermine the Clinton Campaign.”
The report also details Trump’s interest in finding another cache of Clinton documents: 33,000 emails from her home server on which she also conducted some work as secretary of state that hadn’t been retained and were tardily deleted by a technician after they were subpoenaed by the Select Committee on Benghazi.
These emails became a rallying cry for Trump, who made a now-infamous call for Russia’s help in finding the emails. In Trump’s written response to Mueller’s questions, he claimed the request was made “in jest and sarcastically.”
But Flynn told investigators that Trump repeatedly asked his staff to find the emails, and Flynn contacted a number of people to do so. At least two of those people were willing to use wide-ranging methods to attempt to obtain the emails, and they kept high-ranking members of the campaign apprised of their efforts.
Flynn reached out to Barbara Leeden, a long-time Senate staffer, and Peter Smith, an investment advisor, to help in trying to find the emails. Leeden in December 2015, had already emailed Smith a proposal to obtain the emails, recommending that Smith talk to a “person” who could get the “classified” emails “purloined by our enemies.”
Smith declined Leeden’s proposal at the time, but after July re-established contact. Smith set up a new company expressly for the purpose of finding the emails, raising over $30,000 and hiring security experts and business staff. Smith claimed in emails that included Flynn and Trump campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis that he was in contact with hackers with “ties and affiliations to Russia” and provided periodic updates to an undisclosed email list that included the co-chairman about purported negotiations with and talks within WikiLeaks to release the stolen documents.
The Mueller report concluded that Smith was in contact with at least Flynn and Clovis on his search for the deleted emails, “but the Office did not identify evidence that any of the listed individuals initiated or directed Smith's efforts” and did not establish that Smith, Leeden or any of the individuals contacted by Flynn acquired the deleted Clinton emails.
WikiLeaks has repeatedly denied receiving hacked emails from entities tied to the Russian government, and several times hinted at a conspiracy theory that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, who was murdered in what local police believe was a botched mugging, sent the emails. The special counsel’s report said WikiLeaks “falsely implied” Rich was the source of the emails. The report cites repeated examples of WikiLeaks pushing the conspiracy, which the special counsel calls “discredited” in the press.