On October 14, 2016, as talk of Russian interference in the election was heating up, Mike Pence dismissed the growing controversy. Asked by Fox News’s Steve Doocey if the Trump campaign was “in cahoots with WikiLeaks,” Pence insisted there was nothing going on. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Pence replied. “I think all of us have had concerns about WikiLeaks over the years and it’s just a reality of life today.” But a month earlier, Trump Jr. exchanged the first of three direct messages with WikiLeaks, according to a report by Julia Ioffe at The Atlantic.
Over the course of these exchanges, WikiLeaks drew Trump Jr.’s attention to an anti-Trump website, an article about Hillary Clinton wanting to “drone” Julian Assange, and to new emails the group had released from John Podesta. Trump Jr. tweeted about these emails 15 minutes after the DM was sent. WikiLeaks also asked Trump Jr. to leak a copy of his father’s tax return to combat the perception that WikiLeaks was in the tank for Trump.
These exchanges are important for a few reasons. Notably, they show communication and something approaching coordination between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign (Trump Jr. reportedly informed most of the campaign’s top officials of the exchanges, effectively infecting his father’s entire team). As Ioffe points out, Trump Jr. “mostly ignored the frequent messages from WikiLeaks,” but “he at times appears to have acted on its requests.” These exchanges occurred amidst widespread suspicion that WikiLeaks was publishing emails that had been obtained by Russian actors, but that subject never comes up.
What these emails don’t show, however, is significant coordination between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign. While it’s clear that WikiLeaks was trying to coordinate, Trump Jr. only bit a few times, and mostly on relatively insignificant issues.
What is clear, however, is that Trump Jr. is not very smart. Any communication with WikiLeaks, particularly over unsecured DMs, was likely to become public at some point. But Trump Jr., as he did in other instances, took the bait when offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Responding to these DMs at all was incredibly stupid, given the suspicions about Russia’s involvement in the election and his father’s campaign’s repeated insistence that it not in “cahoots” with WikiLeaks and Russia. And now all of this is a big problem for Donald Trump Jr.—and his father.