President Donald Trump has declared that he knows “nothing about WikiLeaks” after co-founder Julian Assange was hauled out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
Mr Trump’s claim is a stark contrast to how he showered praise on Assange’s hacking organisation during the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Asked about Thursday’s arrest, Mr Trump said: “It’s not my thing. I know there is something having to do with Julian Assange.
“I’ve been seeing what’s happened with Assange and that will be a determination, I would imagine, mostly by the attorney general, who’s doing an excellent job. So, he’ll be making a determination. I know nothing really about him.”
“It’s not my deal in life.”
But WikiLeaks was of interest to Mr Trump in 2016 as he welcomed the political boost his campaign got and cheered on the release of Hillary Clinton campaign emails.
On the same October day that the Access Hollywood tape emerged, revealing that Mr Trump had bragged in 2005 about groping women, WikiLeaks began releasing damaging emails from Mrs Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta.
Mr Trump and his allies, facing a tough battle in the campaign’s final month, seized on the illegal dumps and weaponised them.
“WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks,” Mr Trump said in Pennsylvania.
“This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove,” Mr Trump said in Michigan.
“Boy, I love reading WikiLeaks,” Mr Trump said in Ohio.
Mr Trump extolled WikiLeaks more than 100 times and a poster of Assange hung backstage at the Republican’s debate war room.
At no point from a rally stage did Mr Trump express any misgivings about how WikiLeaks obtained the emails from the Clinton campaign or about the accusations of stealing sensitive US government information, which led to the charges against Assange on Thursday.
Assange for years has been under US Justice Department scrutiny for WikiLeaks’ role in publishing thousands of government secrets. He was an important figure in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, as investigators examined how WikiLeaks obtained emails that were stolen from Democratic groups.
When asked about Assange in 2017, Mr Trump said he did not “support or unsupport” WikiLeaks’ move to release hacked emails and that he would not be involved in any decision for the US government to arrest Assange.
“I am not involved in that decision,” whether or not to arrest Assange, Mr Trump told The Associated Press then, “but if they want to do it, it’s OK with me”.
The Justice Department has now charged Assange with taking part in a computer hacking conspiracy, accusing him of scheming with Chelsea Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst, to break a password for a classified government computer.
The single charge of computer intrusion conspiracy carries up to five years in prison, though the Justice Department can add additional charges depending on the evidence it gathers.
Manning was jailed last month for refusing to testify before a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, suggesting that prosecutors are still at work.
“I’m glad to see the wheels of justice are finally turning when it comes to Julian Assange,” tweeted Senator Lindsey Graham, an ally of Mr Trump.
“In my book, he has NEVER been a hero. His actions – releasing classified information – put our troops at risk and jeopardised the lives of those who helped us in Iraq and Afghanistan.”