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Donald Trump Finds Improbable Ally in WikiLeaks

In the final weeks of a dizzying presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump is suddenly embracing an unlikely ally: The document-spilling group WikiLeaks, which Republicans denounced when it published classified State Department cables and Pentagon secrets about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Trump, his advisers, and many of his supporters are increasingly seizing on a trove of embarrassing emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign that WikiLeaks has been publishing — and that American intelligence agencies said on Friday came largely from Russian intelligence agencies, with the authorization of "Russia's senior-most officials."

The Trump campaign's willingness to use WikiLeaks is an extraordinary turnabout after years of bipartisan criticism of the organization and its leader, Julian Assange, for past disclosures of American national security intelligence and other confidential information.

The accusation that Russian agents are now playing an almost-daily role in helping fuel Mr. Trump's latest political attacks on Mrs. Clinton raises far greater concerns, though, about foreign interference in a presidential election.

With the White House weighing its next move — from possible sanctions to covert, retaliatory cyberaction — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia insisted on Wednesday that his nation was being falsely accused. "The hysteria is merely caused by the fact that somebody needs to divert the attention of the American people from the essence of what was exposed by the hackers," Mr. Putin said.

He did acknowledge that the disclosures were the work of an illegal hack — which is further than Mr. Trump went in Sunday's debate. In one exchange with Mrs. Clinton, the Republican candidate said: "Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia," he said, as part of an effort to "tarnish me."

Mr. Trump has seized on more than 6,000 emails published so far this week, apparently from the personal Gmail account of Mrs. Clinton's campaign chairman, John D. Podesta. Based on a few emails plucked from the account, Mr. Trump and his team have accused Clinton aides of improperly receiving inside information from the Obama administration.

That stems from correspondence that shows that the campaign received an update from the Department of Justice about the timing of the release of Mrs. Clinton's State Department emails. On Wednesday, Trump advisers flagged others messages that they argued were critical of New Hampshire voters and of Catholics.

As Mr. Trump struggles to rebound from revelations that he bragged in 2005 about his power to sexually assault women, Republican allies say he has come to believe that WikiLeaks could yield a critical mass of negative and destructive information — if not a smoking gun — that drives up Mrs. Clinton's already high unfavorable ratings with voters and perhaps even derails her candidacy.

Following Mr. Trump's wishes, his advisers have aggressively pushed the Clinton camp emails in news media briefings and cable news appearances, bringing up the hacked messages to battle back from the questions about Mr. Trump's comments about women. But as much as Mr. Trump sees WikiLeaks coming to his rescue, strategists in his own party take a dim view of its ultimate impact.

The Clinton campaign is trying its own political jujitsu with the hacks, arguing that they are more evidence that Mr. Trump is in the pocket of Mr. Putin, whom the Republican candidate has declined to denounce for his annexation of Crimea, his intimidation of former Soviet states that are now part of NATO, or for its abandonment last week of a nuclear arrangement with the United States. Mr. Podesta has gone even further, saying in a statement on Wednesday evening that there was "the possibility that Trump's allies had advance knowledge of the release of these illegally obtained emails."

Intelligence officials say that so far they have not concluded there was any such collusion, but the investigation into who got into Mr. Podesta's emails, and how they got into WikiLeaks' hands, has just begun.

Those emails began to appear on Friday afternoon, just hours after the director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement attributing previous hacks to the Russian government. Officials on Wednesday said it may take weeks to establish whether Mr. Podesta's emails were also hacked by the Russians — though they said the attack on his Gmail account fits the pattern of previous Russian-sponsored email thefts.

Republicans have previously condemned WikiLeaks and similarly blasted the leaks by Edward J. Snowden, a National Security Agency contractor, and said they were evidence of carelessness by the Obama administration.

When Mr. Snowden's disclosures about the scope of the N.S.A. spying were brought to light, it touched off a feverish debate over government invading people's privacy, and many Republicans denounced Mr. Snowden as a traitor. The emails from Mr. Podesta were also the result of an illegal hack — but of a private email account or campaign emails, not a government agency.

Among the Trump supporters who have most vocally praised WikiLeaks is Sean Hannity, the Fox News host who excoriated the site's editor, Julian Assange, years ago.

Representative Peter T. King, the Republican from Long Island, who supports Mr. Trump, said he would not go as far as Mr. Hannity had in "rehabilitating Assange." Then, conflating the WikiLeaks disclosures with the Snowden disclosures, he added that: "I thought what Snowden did was disgraceful, treasonous. But the reality is the information is out there, and if Hillary doesn't deny it then to me it certainly has to be used."

Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and another Trump supporter, said that Democrats showed no compunction about using unauthorized material when it came to Mr. Trump's 1995 tax returns, or a leaked NBC audio recording of Mr. Trump boasting about groping. Mr. Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, insisted on Wednesday that the information that WikiLeaks and other outlets had made public from hacking collectives is "relevant."

"But for this information, a number of revelations would remain secret — how Hillary Clinton really feels, how paranoid she really was about an Elizabeth Warren challenge, her ability to articulate a message that's cohesive and credible," Ms. Conway said in an interview. She dismissed questions about spreading information that is stolen and in some cases unsubstantiated. "They say stuff all the time that's not verified," Ms. Conway said of Democrats. "This is the wild wild West of instantaneous information that people neither trust nor verify, they just repeat."

Ms. Conway and the former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, held a conference call with reporters to highlight an email from Mrs. Clinton's campaign manager, Jennifer Palmieri, which they insisted showed "bias" toward Catholics. Ms. Palmieri told reporters she did not recognize that email.

While some Republican strategists questioned the maneuver by Mr. Trump, the Clinton campaign seemed uncertain about how to navigate the disclosures, particularly after calling attention to the unauthorized disclosures of pages of Mr. Trump's tax returns in The New York Times and an 11-year-old tape featuring the candidate bragging about forcing himself on women. For the most part, the Clinton team repeatedly criticized news organizations for using hacked materials. But privately, Democrats expressed deep concern about how much more widespread the breaches could be.

Counting on an "October surprise" bombshell has never been a winning gambit for a struggling presidential nominee, and Republican pollsters say that the WikiLeaks email will do little to help Mr. Trump attract more undecided voters, especially women, or reassure wavering Trump supporters.

More than anything, pollsters say, the emails will merely reinforce the views of relatively narrow numbers of people who are intensely suspicious of government. "Trump has a hard-core base," said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. "They ought to spend less time figuring out how to reinforce those people and more time trying to add to his vote column."

Mr. Trump, at a rally on Wednesday afternoon in Ocala, Fla., called the hacked campaign emails "unbelievable" and urged voters to read the messages "released by WikiLeaks." He said the emails "make more clear than ever, just how much is at stake in November and how unattractive and dishonest our country has become."

"It tells you the inner heart," he said. "You got to read it."

For many of Mr. Trump's supporters, the sudden appearance of confidential Clinton campaign emails is a stroke of fortune that, they think, could improve Mr. Trump's chances of winning on Nov. 8. "I think if he makes it a big deal, if he keeps on pressuring on it, it really will help," said Diego Rielo, 24, of Gainesville, Fla.

Dane Graves, 47, of Dunnellon, Fla., said the email disclosures were a strategic benefit for Mr. Trump because they "reaffirmed" comments that he has made as a candidate about the two-faced nature of politicians and alleged malfeasance in government.

"He's not basing his campaign on WikiLeaks — it's only backing up what he's been saying the whole time," Mr. Graves said. "It's really backing up what the people have been feeling all of this time about the corruption of government, embedded, just the trickle-down corruption."

Some veteran Republican strategists say the WikiLeaks disclosures may be heartening to Mr. Trump and his supporters, but the emails are highly unlikely to influence undecided voters in battleground states like Ohio and North Carolina..

"There's real nihilism in the Trump campaign right now, just determined to do anything and say anything to make this the most disgusting final weeks in a presidential campaign ever," said Steve Schmidt, who was a senior adviser to John McCain's campaign in 2008. "Distrust of Clinton is pretty well baked into parts of the electorate right now. But 55 to 60 percent of the country is open to a Clinton presidency and wants to see the next president get to work with Congress to help the country."

[Source: By Patrick Healy, David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times, 12Oct16]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
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