President Trump's secretary of state has dubbed Julian Assange's group WikiLeaks a "hostile intelligence service." Trump's national security adviser once called on the US to use WikiLeaks for "target practice." And his attorney general asserted that the arrest of Assange remains a "priority" for the United States.
But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher sees Assange differently.
"He's a very honorable man," Rohrabacher told CNN.
Rohrabacher, a California Republican facing a potentially difficult re-election this fall, occupies an unusual space in politics. He's an unapologetic defender of someone viewed as a villain in Washington and a sharp skeptic of the widely held view in Congress and from US intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the US elections.
In an interview with CNN, the Russia-friendly congressman doubled down on his stance, vigorously defending Assange and offering details about a meeting he initiated -- along with a controversial, far-right blogger -- with the WikiLeaks founder at the Ecuadorian embassy last summer in London where he has been out of reach of authorities since 2012.
Rohrabacher, 70, came away from that meeting assured that the hack at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 2016 -- viewed with certainty by the US intelligence community as an attack orchestrated by Russia -- had nothing to do with the Kremlin. It was, as Rohrabacher asserted, an "inside job," though there's no evidence to suggest that's the case.
"No, I do not," Rohrabacher said flatly when asked if he believed the Russians were behind the hack of the DNC and former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's emails.
"He said, 'I have physical proof that the Russians did not give me this,'" Rohrabacher said, referring to Assange. "And [Assange said] that 'I have physical proof that I would be very happy to provide once I can leave the Ecuadorian embassy without being arrested.'"
Rohrabacher, a former aide to Ronald Reagan who has served in the House for nearly three decades, tried to take Assange's message directly to Trump but was denied a meeting by White House chief of staff John Kelly, something the California Republican attributed to the Mueller investigation. A source familiar with the White House's thinking said officials feared Trump would seize onto Rohrabacher's cause to rebut allegations of campaign collusion with Russia, but doing so would put Trump at sharp odds with the rest of his government that has pinned the blame for election meddling squarely on the Kremlin.
"That's what I wanted to talk to the President about," Rohrabacher said, referring to Assange's promise to provide information to Washington exonerating Russia in exchange for allowing him to be released from the embassy without being arrested by the US. "But now I've been cut off from that because of the fear that the special counsel here will use that as an excuse to expand this nonsensical witch hunt."
Rohrabacher has spoken with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees about his interactions with Assange, but he has yet to speak to Mueller's team. His deputy chief of staff, Paul Behrends, who also has Russia contacts, has spoken to the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to Rohrabacher's spokesman.
Last year US officials told CNN that authorities have prepared charges to seek the arrest of Assange -- who has been under investigation by the Justice Department dating back to at least 2010 when WikiLeaks posted thousands of files stolen by the former US Army intelligence analyst now known as Chelsea Manning.
That preceded the effort in 2016 when hackers working for Russian intelligence agencies stole thousands of emails from the DNC and officials in the Clinton campaign and used intermediaries to pass along the documents to WikiLeaks, according to a public assessment by US intelligence agencies.
But Rohrabacher, who views himself as a "Libertarian conservative" and Assange as a "Libertarian leftist," sees it differently. While he said "a few times" WikiLeaks has released information that has been "damaging to our national security," Rohrabacher added: "I think he's had a good positive influence on our country and the world by making information available that was not available."
How Dana met Julian
Late one night last year while hosting a barbeque at his home in California, Rohrabacher struck up a conversation with Chuck Johnson, a conservative blogger with controversial views who has a friendly relationship with the congressman.
Johnson told CNN that the two discussed meeting in London since they both planned to be in Europe on separate trips at the same time. Their plan: Meet with Assange, with whom Johnson says he has a prior relationship and speaks with on a "semi-regular basis" through his associates.
Rohrabacher, who became the first congressman known to have met with Assange, paid for the trip out of his own pocket since it was not authorized by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he serves as a member, according to a congressional aide. Rohrabacher has long contended that his position on the panel has encouraged him to build closer ties to Russia.
The two Americans met in a conference room of the Ecuadorian embassy with just Assange and his attorney present. Rohrabacher first had to convince the WikiLeaks founder he was not one of "those deep state guys" -- and was on Assange's side.
"He had to get a feeling that he could trust me and he knows I'm not there as basically an agent for the government," Rohrabacher said.
During their three-hour meeting, Rohrabacher recalled discussing their respective philosophies about government -- and talking at length about the 2016 meddling in the elections. Assange made the case that the Russians were not behind the 2016 attacks on the US elections.
"He showed us the evidence that the Russians were not involved," Johnson said. "He said he would love to open up a channel of communication with the Trump administration, and we said we would see what we would do on that front."
Both Rohrabacher and Johnson said Assange did not disclose having any contacts with Trump associates during the 2016 elections.
"I didn't talk to him about that," Rohrabacher said.
When they returned to Washington, Johnson said they pursued the matter with White House officials and several lawmakers, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whom the two met with, according to Johnson. Paul declined to comment. "I don't have anything for you," he said when asked about the meeting.
Johnson said he had a "pretty good conversation" with Paul but the senator was "resigned to the fact" that there was no way to pursue their cause.
"No one really wanted to touch the matter," Johnson said.
And virtually no one on Capitol Hill shares Rohrabacher's rosy view of Assange.
"Deep staters believe that he's a bad guy and an evil person," Rohrabacher said. "I don't."
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