One of the key ways the Russian government supported the Trump campaign was by hacking into the email inboxes of Democratic politicians and operatives and strategically releasing the information through the website WikiLeaks. Even during the election, there was evidence that individuals involved with the Trump campaign were in continual contact with WikiLeaks, and may have even had advanced warning regarding future leaks.
One individual associated with the Trump campaign to have contact with WikiLeaks was Roger Stone. Stone, a long-time Republican operative with a reputation as a “dirty trickster,” officially worked on Trump’s campaign from its inception until August 8, 2015, at which point Stone either quit (in his telling) or was fired (according to the campaign). However, Stone continued advising Trump throughout the campaign, including reportedly playing a significant role in Trump’s decision to hire Paul Manafort.
While most of the Trump campaign kept their contacts regarding WikiLeaks secret, Stone was more upfront. On August 8, 2016, Stone told a conference of Republicans, “I actually have communicated with [WikiLeaks co-founder Julian] Assange. I believe the next tranche of his documents pertain to the Clinton Foundation, but there’s no telling what the October surprise may be.” On August 12, Stone said on a podcast that he believed Assange had emails deleted from Hillary Clinton’s personal server; that same day, Guccifer 2.0, the online persona who claimed credit for the hacks, sent a thank-you note to Stone shortly after releasing a set of documents with personal information about Democratic candidates. According to Stone, he began messaging with Guccifer 2.0 on Twitter on August 14. Guccifer was later revealed to be a front for a Russian military intelligence unit. The special counsel indictment alleges that Russian hackers used the Guccifer 2.0 persona in two ways in their interference operation: first, “to release documents through WordPress that they had stolen from the DCCC and DNC,” and second, “to undermine the allegations to Russian responsibility for the intrusion.” Over the following months, Stone said on multiple occasions that he had communicated with Assange either in person or through a mutual acquaintance.
On August 21, Stone tweeted, “Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Stone’s tweet is important because, though Podesta’s inbox had been hacked in March 2016, even Podesta did not know about the hack until WikiLeaks began leaking the emails on October 7, 2016. Three days later, Assange released a statement that he would not release any damaging information about Trump. Stone continued to evince advanced knowledge of information to come on WikiLeaks, tweeting on October 1 and October 3 that WikiLeaks would soon be revealing additional damaging information about Clinton. In February 2018, the Atlantic obtained transcripts from Roger Stone’s private twitter messages, which confirmed that Stone considered himself a “friend” of Wikileaks.
Roger Stone was not the only link between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks; the campaign also contacted WikiLeaks through Cambridge Analytica, the company Jared Kushner hired to run the campaign’s digital operations in June 2016. According to The Daily Beast, Alexander Nix, an employee at Cambridge Analytica, informed the company’s owner Rebekah Mercer in late July that he had emailed Assange about tracking down emails deleted from Clinton’s servers; Assange has confirmed that the company received the email, but rejected Nix’s offer. The Republican opposition researcher Peter Smith also reportedly began searching for emails deleted from Clinton’s servers in September 2016.
Donald Trump, Jr., also had undisclosed contacts with WikiLeaks during the campaign. On September 20, 2016, the WikiLeaks Twitter account sent a direct message to Trump Jr. with a link to the website for an anti-Trump PAC and the website’s password. Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks exchanged several messages during the final month of the campaign, including ones in which WikiLeaks suggested Trump contest the results of the election and proposed that Trump tell Australia to appoint Assange ambassador to the United States. After The Atlantic reported on the conversation on November 13, 2017, Trump Jr. posted pictures of the exchange on Twitter.
On July 13, 2018, the special counsel returned an indictment which charged 12 Russian military officers for their involvement in Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. The indictment makes clear that the hackers partnered with an organization that has been identified as WikiLeaks, with whom they “discussed the release of the stolen documents and the timing of those releases” in order “to heighten their impact on the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”