Donald Trump ‘initially wanted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange executed’, a US lawyer told the extradition hearing.
US lawyer Eric Lewis said that at one point in 2010, Mr Trump had called for the death penalty, before changing his view and then later changing it again to be more negative towards Assange and WikiLeaks.
A court heard today that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition trial is a ‘politically motivated prosecution’ fuelled by Donald Trump’s desire to ‘keep him quiet’ as rumours the President was aided by foreign powers including Russia in the 2016 election continue to plague his ‘legitimacy’.
US lawyer Eric Lewis claimed that President Trump is ‘desperate to squash’ the ‘threat’ Assange poses to his ‘legitimacy’ by ‘diverting attention’ and jailing him, according to his witness statement presented to Assange’s extradition hearing.
The Old Bailey in London heard how President Trump has blown hot and cold over the WikiLeaks founder, first calling for his execution in 2010 before making ‘140 positive mentions’ of Assange after WikiLeaks published Democratic National Committee emails to the ‘undoubted benefit of Trump’ in 2016.
When the emails threatened to ‘undermine’ his political legitimacy, the US President reverse ferreted and claimed to know nothing about WikiLeaks, only that ‘there is something having to do with Julian Assange’, it was alleged.
In his statement, Mr Lewis said: ‘The prosecution of Julian Assange is part of Trump’s efforts to distract attention from the help that WikiLeaks gave to focus attention on the earlier leaks, which are much more politically potent for him.
‘He wants to put Mr Assange in jail and keep him quiet.’
Assange’s lawyer continued: ‘WikiLeaks and Mr Assange pose a threat to the legitimacy of Trump’s (election) campaign that he is desperate to squash by diverting attention and imprisoning Mr Assange.
Julian Assange’s extradition trial is a ‘politically motivated prosecution’ fuelled by Donald Trump’s desire to ‘keep him quiet’ as rumours the President was aided by foreign powers including Russia in the 2016 election continue to plague his ‘legitimacy’, a court heard today
‘WikiLeaks is a vulnerability for Trump because of the evidentiary links between his campaign and WikiLeaks.’
Under cross-examination today, US Government attorney James Lewis QC challenged his statement, asking: ‘Are you saying that this is a politically motivated prosecution of someone who helped Mr Trump get elected in 2016?’
The witness replied: ‘I’m saying it was a politically motivated prosecution.’
On his claim Mr Trump wanted to silence Assange and put him in jail, the US prosecutor said: ‘Surely a public trial has the complete opposite effect? I’m putting to you it’s just conjecture.’
Mr Lewis, who gave evidence by video link, replied: ‘It’s an informed assumption putting together the facts and comments from numerous sources.’
Assange, 49, is wanted in the US for allegedly conspiring with army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to expose military secrets between January and May 2010.
He is fighting extradition to the US on an 18-count indictment, which alleges he plotted to hack computers and conspired to obtain and disclose national defence information. Seventeen of the 18 charges fall under the Espionage Act.
If convicted, Assange faces a possible penalty of 175 years in jail.
US lawyer Eric Lewis claimed that President Trump is ‘desperate to squash’ the ‘threat’ Assange poses to his ‘legitimacy’ by ‘diverting attention’ and jailing him, according to his witness statement presented to Assange’s extradition hearing
The Old Bailey heard a claim that Assange will not get a ‘fair trial in the United States.’
Chicago-based lawyer Tom Durkin gave evidence this afternoon from his yellow living room, sporting a dark blue suit, pale blue tie and bushy moustache.
He told the court: ‘I don’t believe he will get what I consider to be a fair trial in the United States.’
The co-founder of law firm Durkin & Roberts said he thought the Obama administration actively declined to prosecute Assange.
‘It seems to me that there was a reason for the Obama administration’s Attorney General not to prosecute.
‘My guess is that case was probably declined. That doesn’t mean they can’t re-open it but that is what happened. They decided not to go ahead. They declined the case. Donald Trump decided to reinstate the charges.’
Mr Durkin said Assange would be pressured into a plea bargain to avoid a ‘draconian’ sentence if extradited.
‘They would put something on the table that you can’t refuse because of the consequences.
‘Most clients understand the risk and in the final analysis they have to accept the risk of those guidelines which are very draconian.’
Mr Durkin warned Assange could receive a prison that ‘will constitute the rest of his likely natural lifespan,’ were he to appear in US court.
He also expanded on his claim from earlier today that Assange would be hampered by the amount of classified evidence in his case.
‘Mr Assange will not know what his lawyers have learned from the classified evidence nor will his lawyers be able to ask Mr Assange what he might know about the materials they have been granted access.
‘This leads, in my opinion, to a deprivation of a defendant’s ability to mount a defence in any case involving classified materials.
‘In that Mr Assange’s case involves virtually nothing but classified evidence, it leads me to question in my professional opinion how it is that he will be able to mount a meaningful defence under these circumstances.
‘It is my professional opinion that the likelihood of Mr Assange being able to mount a fulsome and meaningful defence to these charges is, for all intents and purposes, non-existent.’
Stella Moris (right), the partner of WikiLeaks founder Assange, and his lawyer Jennifer Robinson (left) arriving at the Old Bailey in London yesterday
Earlier, Mr Lewis QC was quizzing US lawyer Eric Lewis over his claim Assange is facing 175 years behind bars in both ADX Florence, a high-security prison in the Colorado desert, and Alexandria City Jail in Virginia.
The Government attorney said: ‘The 175 years you are saying is simply a soundbite on behalf of the defence. You don’t really expect him to be sentenced to that?’
The witness replied that there was a reasonable ‘likelihood’. He then explained: ‘(Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo has said hostile agencies including Russia, Iran, the Taliban, Syria, Osama Bin Laden (are involved with WikiLeaks).
‘Mr Assange’s maximum is 175 years. I have gone through the sentencing guidelines. There has never been a case like this one.’
James Lewis also contested the claim that a prolonged period in custody ‘will cause psychological damage’. ‘The reality is that you were just fishing about,’ he said.
The witness replied: ‘I could have gone on for hundreds of pages, I did not. If I were fishing there are some large fish in there.’
He also asserted that journalists are free to ‘provide information for the purposes of publication and also to protect that source’ without fear of prosecution, adding that ‘legal precedent precludes prosecuting Assange’.
Professor Mark Feldstein last week claimed the Obama administration wanted to charge Assange but decided against it because of the risk to press freedom. But the situation changed under President Trump who had ‘the media in his sights,’ he said.
Also last week, Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director of the San Francisco-based Freedom of the Press Foundation, told the court that his organisation had contributed around $100,000 to Assange’s legal costs.
He described the case as ‘a dire threat to press freedoms in the US’ and agreed that it was the ‘thin end of the wedge to prosecute journalists’.
Appearing in court by video-link, he said: ‘Virtually every newspaper in the US has vehemently condemned the charges before the court today as a potentially clear and present danger to the freedom of the press in the US.
‘This indictment is unconstitutional.
‘WikiLeaks, like anybody else, has a first-amendment right to ask to see documents which potentially show corruption and illegality. If this was to go forward it would potentially criminalise all those other organisations.’
In a written statement, Mr Timm described the decision to charge Assange as ‘a massive and unprecedented escalation in Trump’s war on journalism’.
The extradition hearing, which is expected to last four weeks, continues.