WikiLeaks has been sliding into Donald Trump Jr.’s DMs. The mostly one-sided conversation, surfaced by The Atlantic, lasted at least from September 2016 to July 2017. Throughout that stretch, WikiLeaks sent Donald Trump Jr. direct messages through Twitter, asking him for his father’s tax returns, suggesting Trump Senior reject election results if Hillary Clinton won, and even oh-so-casually floating the idea that Julian Assange might make a good Australian ambassador. Trump Jr. mostly ignored the messages and has since tweeted out the whole exchange, though he did occasionally act on their (somewhat less outré) requests.
But while the exchange surprised some, it’s actually right on brand for both WikiLeaks and Trump Jr. For the president’s son, it’s yet another sketchy (and vaguely Russia-linked) dalliance that makes him look more like a fall guy than a conspirator. And WikiLeaks? Despite branding itself as a neutral conduit of information, WikiLeaks has spent the last few years acting (and tweeting) like an internet troll with a political agenda.
WikiLeaks seems to have three modes of late: releasing information that endangers people, releasing information that seems to reveal a political agenda, and straight-up trolling on social media.
In the endangerment category, there’s the so-called Erdogan emails, released in the same week as Turkey’s attempted coup. The info-dump turned out not to unveil the misdeeds of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at all, but rather revealed sensitive personal information of Turkish citizens.
Then during last summer’s US presidential campaign, WikiLeaks releases appeared to align with with Russian interests: the DNC email leak was almost certainly of Russian origin, and the group’s leak of Moscow’s spying techniques was so piddly in comparison to their typical style of truth-telling that some security analysts questioned whether it was merely to provide cover.
And then there’s the trolling. Intermixed with info-dumps and international political commentary, the official WikiLeaks Twitter account sends tweets that wouldn’t look out of place on a far-right subreddit.
They even threw gasoline on the debunked Seth Rich conspiracy theory.
This bizarre internet behavior encompasses everything from garden-variety trolling to an espousal of far-right politics to an attempt to amplify Russia’s campaign to spread fake news and sow chaos in the United States. But throughout those flare-ups, WikiLeaks has insisted that transparency remains its primary goal, which feels out of step with how opaque its inner workings are.
So these leaked DMs (oh, the irony) are a serious embarrassment for them. People have obliquely observed WikiLeaks’ seeming hypocrisies before, but this is an up-close look at the meat grinder while the sausage gets made. WikiLeaks isn’t supposed to know the identity of their leakers—it’s part of their whole “facilitating anonymous sources speaking dangerous truths to power” schtick—so soliciting Trump Jr. to give them information steps outside of the organization’s own rules. And the language in the messages referenced by The Atlantic reads more like a pesky PR rep than a radical transparency organization (“Hiya, it’d be great if you guys could comment on/push this story”).
The messages also directly implicate WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. “Assange himself says he can sometimes know a source,” says Mark Fenster, a lawyer at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and author of The Transparency Fix: Secrets, Leaks, and Uncontrollable Government Information. “Which suggests that these DMs are either coming straight from him, or the organization is not nearly so airtight as he has claimed.”
Assange is attempting to distance himself from the DMs by saying he can’t confirm them, but in July he tweeted that he was in contact with Trump Jr. back right before his Russian lawyer email debacle. And now Assange is saying the DMs are evidence of WikiLeaks’ transparency-begetting “chutzpah”—the spin keeps spinning, ever on and on.
The Trump Jr. exchange raises plenty of questions, like why Trump Jr. didn’t outright rebuff the group’s advances. But at least makes clearer that WikiLeaks, founded on the principles of neutrality and transparency, appears to have a hidden agenda after all. One that doesn’t seem so sweeping and global, and that looks, instead, more and more like the furtherance of Assange himself—that ambassadorship!—and retribution for his perceived adversaries. That may be radical, but it’s anything but transparent.