A controversial “alt-right” journalist and provocateur who met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in London this week says he is refusing to turn over documents and emails requested by the Senate Intelligence Committee about any contacts he has had with Russian agents, telling Yahoo News he has no intention of cooperating with the panel’s investigation.
“I’m absolutely not” going to cooperate with the committee, Charles C. Johnson said in an interview after returning from London, where he had set up a meeting this week between Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy.
“They’re going to have to subpoena me and then they’ll be sorely disappointed,” he added. Johnson said his lawyer would raise journalistic “privilege” issues to resist turning over any communications he might have had with Russian nationals or agents. The committee had requested the material in a July 27 letter it sent him, asking that the documents by turned over by Aug. 10. Johnson has since posted the letter on a website he runs, GotNews.
Johnson’s stand would appear to make him the first figure in the Russia investigation to take such a publicly defiant position — refusing to cooperate in any way with the committee probe. Even prospective witnesses who have repeatedly derided the Russia investigations, such as longtime Donald Trump adviser Roger Stone, have said they will comply with requests from the Senate and House intelligence committees (although Stone in particular has been dodgy about whether he will respond to questions about the identity of a “backchannel” figure who tipped him off to material Assange was about to publish.) Another key figure, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, initially refused to respond to a committee request and requested immunity, but later turned over people sought by the panel. A spokeswoman for committee chair, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., declined any comment about Johnson.
Johnson is an intriguing figure to committee investigators for multiple reasons: He is an inflammatory “alt-right” journalist and entrepreneur who was banned from Twitter two years ago for appearing to threaten a Black Lives Matter activist. Despite this, he maintains apparent ties to some officials in the White House as well as Assange, whose organization, WikiLeaks, has been described by CIA Director Mike Pompeo as a “nonstate hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”
The letter Johnson got from the Senate Intelligence Committee came after a Politico article identified him as one of the figures who was in touch with the late Peter Smith, a wealthy Chicago hedge fund executive who last year sought to mobilize hackers from around the world — including Russians — in a quest to find copies of the 33,000 personal emails that Hillary Clinton had deleted from her personal server.
Johnson had told Politico that Smith, with whom he had long been friendly, had asked him last year to put him in touch with then Trump campaign chief (and later senior White House official) Steve Bannon as well as an independent hacker who he believed he could help obtain the Clinton emails. Johnson maintained he demurred on the Bannon request because he didn’t believe Smith’s operation was “sophisticated” enough.
The letter Johnson got from the committee asked that he turn over “all documents, emails, text messages” and any other communications he might have had “with Russians” or “representatives of Russian government, business or media interests.” This should include material about “any attempt to search for electronic information that may have been stolen or compromised by cyber activity.”
Johnson called the committee’s request “a fishing expedition” and “laughably overbroad,” adding, “How am I supposed to know who was Russian who I was communicating with? … I have a friend who is supermodel who was born in Russia. Does it include her?”
Aside from the Smith effort relating to the Clinton emails, Johnson could potentially be of even more interest to the committee as a result of the three-hour meeting he arranged this week (and which he attended) between Assange and Rohrabacher, a Republican who has consistently argued for closer ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government.
Johnson said he and Rohrabacher came back from their meeting with a specific proposal that the congressman intends to present to President Trump soon: Grant a preemptive pardon to Assange (who has been under Justice Department investigation for years, although he has never been charged) and the WikiLeaks founder would, in exchange, turn over “irrefutable” evidence that he didn’t get the Democratic National Committee emails from Russia, but from another source.
“Assange wants to have a deal with the president,” Johnson said. “He believes he should be pardoned in the same way that Chelsea Manning was pardoned.” Once Assange turns his evidence over, showing the Russians were not the source of the DNC emails, then the “president could put the kibosh” on the whole Russia investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Johnson declined to say what Assange’s supposed evidence actually is (though he did say it did not include any documents). But he insisted he has spoken to unidentified figures in the White House who have told him the president wants to hear the proposal. “I know the president is interested in this,” he said. “There will be a meeting between Rep. Rohrabacher and President Trump.”
A spokesman for Rohrabacher confirmed that Johnson had arranged the meeting between the congressman and Assange. “My understanding is that there is not yet a concrete proposal, but that Dana does believe that if Assange does turn over the proof he’s promised, then he deserves a pardon,” the spokesman said.
A White House official with knowledge of the Russia probe, who asked not to be identified by name, said he was unfamiliar with the request for a meeting.
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