Donald Trump offered Julian Assange a pardon if he would say Russia was not involved in leaking Democratic party emails, a court in London has been told.
The extraordinary claim was made at Westminster magistrates court before the opening next week of Assange’s legal battle to block attempts to extradite him to the US.
Assange’s barrister, Edward Fitzgerald QC, referred to evidence alleging that the former US Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher had been to see Assange, now 48, while he was still in the Ecuadorian embassy in August 2017.
Assange appeared in court on Wednesday by videolink from Belmarsh prison, wearing dark tracksuit bottoms and a brown jumper over a white shirt.
A statement from Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson shows “Mr Rohrabacher going to see Mr Assange and saying, on instructions from the president, he was offering a pardon or some other way out, if Mr Assange … said Russia had nothing to do with the DNC [Democratic National Committee] leaks”, Fitzgerald told Westminster magistrates court.
District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who is hearing the case at Westminster, said the evidence is admissible.
White House spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, told reporters: “The president barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he’s an ex-congressman. He’s never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject.”
“It is a complete fabrication and a total lie,” Grisham said. “This is probably another never ending hoax and total lie from the DNC.”
Trump, however, invited Rohrabacher to the White House in April 2017 after seeing the then congressman on Fox TV defending the president.
In September 2017, the White House confirmed that Rohrabacher had called the then chief of staff, John Kelly, to talk about a possible deal with Assange.
Rohrabacher told the Wall Street Journal that as part of the deal he was proposing, Assange would have to hand over a computer drive or other data storage device that would prove that Russia was not the source of the hacked emails.
“He would get nothing, obviously, if what he gave us was not proof,” Rohrabacher said.
The report quoted an unnamed administration official as saying that Kelly had told Rohrabacher that the proposal “was best directed to the intelligence community”. The same official said Kelly did not convey Rohrabacher’s message to Trump, who was unaware of the details of the proposed deal.
Rohrabacher said at the time he was sceptical of the CIA’s impartiality, as it had been part of the US intelligence community consensus that Russia had meddled in the presidential election.
Until he was voted out of office in 2018, Rohrabacher was a consistent voice in Congress in defence of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, claiming to have been so close to the Russian leader that they had engaged in a drunken arm-wrestling match in the 1990s. In 2012, the FBI warned him that Russian spies were seeking to recruit him as an “agent of influence”.
Neither Rohrabacher, who now lives in Maine, nor his lawyer returned calls seeking comment on Assange’s claims.
The publication of emails hacked from the Hillary Clinton campaign helped perpetuate an aura of scandal around the Democratic candidate a few weeks before the 2016 election.
WikiLeaks put them online hours after Trump had suffered an apparent public relations disaster with the emergence of a tape in which he boasted of molesting women.
Assange is wanted in America to face 18 charges, including conspiring to commit computer intrusion, over the publication of US cables a decade ago.
He could face up to 175 years in jail if found guilty. He is accused of working with the former US army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to leak hundreds of thousands of classified documents.
The extradition hearing is due to begin at Woolwich crown court on Monday, beginning with a week of legal argument. It will then be adjourned and continue with three weeks of evidence scheduled to begin on 18 May.
The decision, which is expected months later, is likely to be appealed against by the losing side, whatever the outcome.
Assange has been held on remand in Belmarsh prison since last September after serving a 50-week jail sentence for breaching his bail conditions while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.
He entered the building in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex offence allegations, which he has always denied and were subsequently dropped.
Assange’s claims of a deal emerged a day after Trump granted clemency to a string of high-profile figures convicted on fraud or corruption charges, including the former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and the “junk bond king” Michael Milken. Trump has not excluded pardoning Roger Stone, a former aide who was convicted in November of obstructing a congressional investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race, and in particular for lying to investigators about his relationship with Assange and WikiLeaks.
Stone once boasted that he had dinner with Assange but later said the claim was a joke.
Ned Price, a former national security council spokesman said on Twitter: “It sure sounds like Assange’s attorneys are prepared to back-up this claim with evidence. It’s another indication that Trump’s assault on the rule of law isn’t new; it’s been ongoing throughout his term.”