Why the Guardian Report of ‘Secret Talks’ Between Manafort and Assange Could Be Significant

The Guardian is reporting that President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, met with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in the spring of 2016 around the same time Mr. Manafort joined Mr. Trump’s campaign. The Guardian report is based mostly on vaguely identified unnamed sources, so some caution is warranted. But, given Wikileaks’ role in releasing tens of thousands of Democratic emails hacked by Russia’s intelligence services such a meeting, if it did actually happen, would be of significant interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

If there was coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 election, Paul Manafort would have been the most plausible interlocutor. His shady, and allegedly outright corrupt, business dealings with Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former pro-Russian President, and a rogues gallery of oligarchs and former Russian spies would position him well for such a role. According to the opposition research dossier prepared by Christopher Steele, a former British spy, Mr. Manafort was the key figure on the Trump side in a “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation between [the Trump campaign] and the Russian leadership.”

Mr. Manafort and Mr. Assange vehemently deny any involvement with each other or with Russia’s 2016 shenanigans. Mr. Manafort issued a statement blasting the story as “totally false and deliberately libelous.” Wikileaks likewise denounced the story in a tweet Tuesday morning.

Still, suspicions linger over both men. If Mr. Manafort and Mr. Assange did meet in March of 2016, as the Guardian report suggests, what did they talk about? The answer is that we don’t know. It could have been related to Trump’s campaign, Russia, or something else entirely. Or, maybe it didn’t happen at all, and The Guardian story is just wrong. But, accepting the premise that it did, there are some intriguing coincidences to consider.

It was around this same March 2016 timeframe that hackers associated with the G.R.U., Russia’s military intelligence agency, stole 50,000 emails from the Gmail account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. It was these same emails that Wikileaks began posting just minutes after The Washington Post published the Access Hollywood tape, a recording of Mr. Trump bragging about groping women that seemed certain to doom his Presidential bid. Wikileaks’ release of the the Podesta emails proved a critically-timed distraction that blunted the impact of the tape and perhaps saved Mr. Trump’s campaign.

Was the timing of the Podesta emails a remarkable coincidence or a carefully coordinated fail-safe? If so, coordinated with whom? Wikileaks, the Trump campaign, Russians? Whatever the case, Mr. Manafort and Mr. Assange’s alleged confab in the Ecuadorian Embassy, London, could hold the answers.

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