It’s one of the few areas where the President has nearly unchecked power.
President Trump issued a raft of pardons this week, but news out of London on Wednesday raises questions about whether the tool has been a bargaining chip since the early months of Trump’s presidency.
The question comes in the case of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, currently fighting extradition to the U.S. from London.
In a court hearing on Wednesday, a lawyer for Assange reportedly told a British judge a bizarre story involving Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a potential pardon, and Roger Stone wannabe Chuck Johnson.
The Assange lawyer outlined a potential deal for Assange in 2017 that was allegedly offered roughly two years before he was eventually indicted in the U.S. Per the alleged deal, supposedly conveyed by Rohrabacher on behalf of President Trump, Assange would announce that Russia had nothing to do with the emails and documents that Wikileaks released during the 2016 election.
In return, Assange would get something very simple: a pardon.
The alleged deal raises a host of questions about what may have been an early effort to counter the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Assange reportedly was asked not only to issue a statement disavowing any ties to Russia, but also to supply a hard drive that, Rohrabacher claimed, would “exonerate Russia.”
President Trump was impeached last year over his attempt to engage Ukraine in a similar quid pro quo, in part as part of a bid to pressure Kyiv into undermining the prosecution of Paul Manafort.
The comments in court could suggest that Rohrabacher tried to cut a similar deal with Assange, instead dangling a pardon before the Wikileaks founder in exchange for his help in undermining an allegation at the heart of both the Mueller probe and the brouhaha over Russian interference in the 2016 election: that Moscow did, in fact, interfere by dumping stolen emails from the DNC and Clinton campaign into the public domain via Wikileaks.
At the time of the supposed offer to Assange, the Wikileaks founder was stranded in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, but not because of any U.S. arrest warrant. Rather, he was there to hide out on sexual assault charges filed in Sweden.
In court on Wednesday, Edward Fitzgerald, a lawyer for Assange, said that another attorney of the Wikileaks founder’s had a statement showing, “Mr. Rohrabacher going to see Mr. Assange and saying, on instructions from the President, he was offering a pardon or some other way out, if Mr. Assange … said Russia had nothing to do with the DNC leaks.”
Whether Trump’s involvement in Rohrabacher’s trip was real or a matter of the longtime marijuana legalization supporter’s puffery is unclear.
Rohrabacher did not return a request for comment from TPM. The White House denied the allegation in a statement, saying that Trump “barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he’s an ex-congressman. He’s never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject. It is a complete fabrication and a total lie.”
The notoriously unreliable politician did issue a statement about his contacts with Assange in August 2017, after meeting with the Wikileaks founder at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Chuck Johnson, the conservative activist who briefly owned a website called Gotnews, was also in attendance.
Titled, “Rohrabacher: Assange Says Russia Not Behind DNC Email Leak,” Rohrabacher’s August 2017 statement claims that the congressman, known for his puzzling ties and affinity for Russia, “spent some three hours with the Australian-born fugitive.”
“The conversation ranged over many topics, said Rohrabacher, including the status of Wikileaks, which Assange maintains is vital to keeping Americans informed on matters hidden by their traditional media,” the statements reads. “The congressman plans to divulge more of what he found directly to President Trump.”
Trump and Rohrabacher met in April 2017 in the Oval Office. A Rohrabacher spokesman said at the time that the meeting took place “at the President’s invitation.”
But it’s not clear what contacts the pair had after that April meeting.
One month after Rohrabacher’s August 2017 meeting with Assange, the Wall Street Journal reported that Rohrabacher had proposed the pardon-for-Russia denial “deal” to then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
The Journal reported that Kelly rebuffed Rohrabacher, directing him instead “to the intelligence community.”