As the case to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States moves through the United Kingdom court system, more details are coming to light about Fox News’ role in a pro-Russia congressman’s effort to secure Assange a presidential pardon if he were able to prove that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 election. And as with so many other scandals involving efforts to influence President Donald Trump, network star Sean Hannity is the key player.
Assange’s lawyers told a London court last week that during an August 16, 2017, meeting with Assange, then-Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said that “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 Democratic National Committee emails WikiLeaks published at the height of the 2016 presidential election.
Rohrabacher subsequently admitted that he had told Assange that he would urge Trump to pardon him if he were able to produce such evidence, and he said he had suggested such a deal to then-chief of staff John Kelly. But Rohrabacher also said that he had not been “directed by Trump or anyone else connected with him to meet with Julian Assange,” that Kelly did not follow up with him, and that he never spoke directly to Trump about the proposal. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told reporters that Trump “barely knows” Rohrabacher and has “never spoken to him on this subject.”
However, Rohrabacher took another avenue as he sought to pitch Trump on a possible pardon-for-proof deal: He also went on Fox News. In fact, he sat down with a trusted member of the president’s Fox cabinet who hosts a show Trump regularly watches.
Just days after meeting with Assange, the congressman went on Sean Hannity’s Fox program to discuss his need to meet privately with the president to deliver what the host referred to as “a specific message” from Assange. The pair went on during that August 30, 2017, segment to lay out the possibility that Assange would receive “immunity” if he were able to prove that the U.S. intelligence community was wrong and Russia had not been the source of the DNC emails.
Both Hannity and Rohrabacher have motives to undermine the intelligence community’s conclusion. Hannity, a Trump propagandist and adviser, earlier in 2017 used his platforms to champion the conspiracy theory that the murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich, and not Russia, had stolen the emails from the DNC. Rohrabacher is a notorious ally of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and has said that he met with Assange in part to uncover evidence that Rich had been WikiLeaks’ source.
Hannity repeatedly argued that Assange was credible in claiming that Russia had not been the source of the DNC emails, and he and Rohrabacher agreed this disproved the “Trump-Russia collusion narrative.” At the end of the interview, Hannity turned to the missive Rohrabacher was supposedly trying to convey from Assange to Trump.
“You have a specific message for the president of the United States, but it's only one that you could tell him privately,” Hannity said. “In this environment, is it going to be hard to tell him privately? Because ‘Dana Rohrabacher is now sending back messages from Julian Assange.’ Is that going to be possible? And if not, will you go public with what you know? And obviously Julian Assange probably wants to just be left alone to go to Ecuador is what I would imagine, right?”
“I think that's probably it,” Rohrabacher replied. “I think what we have here is really important for the truth to be known, and I think the president of the United States needs to hear what the details are. And I understand that a meeting with myself and the president is being arranged. So at that point, the purpose is to alert the American people to the truth of what -- of this whole situation.”
Hannity responded by suggesting Assange receive a pardon if he were able to deliver. “If he has the truth that will blow this lie out of the water that you're saying and 99 percent certainty, does he deserve immunity if he reveals the truth to the American people?” he asked.
“Well, if the truth is revealed to the American people, this is a game-changer in this unrelenting hostile attack by the media and this power grab by the left wing,” Rohrabacher said. “And if he helps thwart that, yeah, he deserves a reward.”
It is difficult to imagine that Trump never became aware of Rohrabacher’s pitch. Trump regularly watches Hannity’s show. And the following spring, New York magazine reported that the president and the host were speaking “most weeknights” after his program, often discussing Trump’s reaction to what he had seen. Hannity is so trusted by the president that around the same time, it was reported that White House aides termed him the shadow chief of staff. If Hannity was as excited about a topic as he was about Rohrabacher’s proposal, there’s no reason to think he didn’t mention it to the president in one of their frequent conversations.
Indeed, some evidence has emerged that Hannity may have been serving as a back channel between Trump and Rohrabacher.
Kim Dotcom, a New Zealand-based hacker and ally of Assange who is “fighting extradition to the United States on copyright infringement and wire fraud charges,” tweeted Monday night that he had “brokered the deal via Trumps best friend (name redacted) to get Rep. Dana Rohrbacher to offer a pardon to Julian.” He added: “Trump lies when he says he had nothing to do with the pardon offer.”
Dotcom published what appear to be his text messages with someone who says they had been conveying details of the proposed deal to the president and trying to ensure it happens.
At one point in the texts, Dotcom identified the other person as “Sean,” as national security blogger Marcy Wheeler noted:
Regardless of whether Dotcom’s claims are true, Hannity has repeatedly served as a back channel between unsavory characters and the president. And Dotcom and Hannity have worked together before to try to clear Russia. In May 2017, after Dotcom suggested on Twitter that he had evidence linking Seth Rich and WikiLeaks, Hannity repeatedly promoted Dotcom’s claims and eventually invited him on his Fox program. In response, Rich’s family sent a letter to Hannity’s executive producer asking him to stop promoting these conspiracy theories. The Dotcom interview never happened, with Hannity instead saying on air that he would stop discussing the matter “for now” at the request of the Rich family.