WASHINGTON: The White House on Wednesday denied an allegation that President Trump had offered to pardon Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who is fighting extradition to the United States, if he absolved Russia of hacking Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign.
Mr. Assange’s legal team told a court in London on Wednesday that Mr. Trump had made the offer in 2017 through Dana Rohrabacher, who at the time was a Republican congressman from California.
Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, dismissed the accusation.
“The president barely knows Dana Rohrabacher, other than he’s an ex-congressman,” Ms. Grisham told reporters. “He’s never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject. It is a complete fabrication and a total lie.”
It is not a new revelation that the congressman tried to broker a deal in which Mr. Trump would make Mr. Assange’s legal troubles with the United States go away if he provided evidence disproving that the Russians had hacked the Democratic emails WikiLeaks published.
But the claim, which came the day after Mr. Trump pardoned numerous high-profile white-collar criminals, grabbed attention because a lawyer for Mr. Assange portrayed Mr. Rohrabacher as acting on Mr. Trump’s instructions. Previous accounts have described Mr. Rohrabacher as freelancing an idea that he came up with on his own.
On Wednesday, a lawyer for Mr. Assange, Edward Fitzgerald, referred in court to a statement by another lawyer for Mr. Assange, Jennifer Robinson, describing a purported quid-pro-quo offer conveyed by Mr. Rohrabacher, according to a Daily Beast account of a hearing on what evidence could be admitted at an upcoming extradition hearing.
The statement by Ms. Robinson, he said, described “Mr. Rohrabacher going to see Mr. Assange and saying, on instructions from the president, he was offering a pardon or some other way out” of his legal troubles if Mr. Assange “said Russia had nothing to do with the D.N.C. leaks.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in September 2017 that Mr. Rohrabacher — who lost his seat in the 2018 midterm elections — was trying to broker a deal for a pardon if Mr. Assange produced evidence absolving Russia of the hack. That would have also absolved the Trump campaign of suspicions that it conspired with Russia.
But that article portrayed Mr. Rohrabacher as approaching the White House with an idea that he had come up with, not acting as Mr. Trump’s envoy. It said that he spoke with John F. Kelly, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff at the time, about the possibility of “a meeting between Mr. Assange and a representative of Mr. Trump, preferably someone with direct communication with the president,” but that Mr. Kelly had not passed that message on to the president.
After the Journal article, a local news program for a CBS affiliate in Los Angeles, KCAL, interviewed Mr. Rohrabacher. He confirmed the account, saying that “The Wall Street Journal has the whole thing.”
Mr. Rohrabacher also said in that interview that Mr. Assange “repeatedly told me that the Russians were not involved at all.”
But a later indictment of Russian officials and a lengthy narrative report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, provided extensive details about how the Russian government went about hacking the Democratic emails. Mr. Mueller, however, did not find evidence proving any conspiracy with the Trump campaign.
Mr. Assange, who was holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden for a sexual abuse investigation, was arrested and extracted from the embassy in April 2019. It was the same day that the Justice Department unsealed a narrow charge accusing him of a hacking conspiracy with Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who leaked archives of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks.
The next month, the Justice Department significantly expanded the case against Mr. Assange by adding charges under the Espionage Act that he solicited, acquired and published classified information. The decision to bring criminal charges for such journalistic activities — a separate question from whether Mr. Assange counts as a journalist — was groundbreaking and has surrounded his potential trial with novel First Amendment issues.
But Mr. Assange is fighting the United States’ request that Britain extradite him, arguing that the Trump administration has brought charges against him for political reasons.