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White House denies Trump offered pardon to Assange if he cleared Russia in 2016 hack

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Washington — The White House on Wednesday denied allegations reportedly leveled in a British court by Julian Assange that President Trump offered to pardon the WikiLeaks founder if he said Russia was not responsible for the theft of Democratic Party emails during the 2016 campaign.

Assange is fighting extradition to the U.S. on charges of espionage related to his dealings with Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who leaked millions of documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. 

WikiLeaks also published hundreds of thousands of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign staffers during the 2016 presidential election. U.S. intelligence agencies and former special counsel Robert Mueller's office determined the theft of the documents was part of a sophisticated operation by the Russian military and intelligence services to interfere in the U.S. election to boost then-candidate Trump.

On Wednesday, The Daily Beast reported that attorneys for Assange arguing against his extradition told a court in the U.K. that Dana Rohrabacher, then a Republican congressman, had made Assange an offer: Deny Russia was the source of the 2016 emails, and the president would issue him a full pardon. Edward Fitzgerald, Assange's attorney, told the court that Rohrabacher claimed he was acting "on instructions from the president," according to The Daily Beast.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham categorically denied the president had ever discussed the matter with Rohrabacher, who was defeated in the 2018 election. 

"The President barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he's an ex-congressman. He's never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject," Grisham said. "It is is a complete fabrication and a total lie. This is probably another never ending hoax and total lie from the DNC." 

Rohrabacher, who has been called "Putin's congressman" for various pro-Russia positions over the years, visited Assange in August 2017 and said publicly that Assange "emphatically stated that the Russians were not involved in the hacking or disclosure of those emails." The following month, he told The Wall Street Journal that he called then-White House chief of staff John Kelly to discuss a proposal in which Assange would provide proof that Russia was not involved in exchange for a pardon. 

Rohrabacher declined to discuss the details of his conversation with Kelly at the time, but told The Intercept in an interview several months later that the former Marine Corps general had dismissed the offer out of hand and blocked Rohrabacher from discussing the matter with the president.

"General Kelly has been very responsible to make that decision," Rohrabacher said. "I don't like it, but that's the reality of it, that we can't make the president vulnerable to this kind of prosecutorial power. He's afraid that would open up the door, and I think there's some validity to that."

Mr. Trump has long maintained that Russia's involvement in the 2016 campaign was a "hoax" and fabricated to prevent him from winning the White House and remaining in office.

Gabrielle Ake contributed reporting.

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