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Julian Assange Gets A(nother) Day in Court
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Julian Assange Gets A(nother) Day in Court

Plus: Steve, Sarah, Jonah, and David French weigh in on Ronna McDaniel’s ouster from NBC News and the purpose of political pundits.

Happy Friday! Your Morning Dispatchers are no saints when it comes to being “too online,” but we humbly submit that insisting the Gonzaga men’s basketball team is actually buses of “illegal invaders” might be a sign it’s time to touch grass

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke with House Speaker Mike Johnson on Thursday, urging House Republicans to pass additional aid to Ukraine. “In this situation, quick passage of U.S. aid to Ukraine by Congress is vital,” Zelensky tweeted following the call. “We recognize that there are differing views in the House of Representatives on how to proceed, but the key is to keep the issue of aid to Ukraine as a unifying factor.” Johnson said last week that he’d take up the issue once the House returns on April 9. Meanwhile, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said yesterday that continued U.S.  aid to Ukraine is essential in deterring Chinese action against Taiwan. 
  • A three-judge federal district court panel ruled Thursday that South Carolina can use a new congressional map for this year’s election, pausing enforcement of an earlier decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina that found the new maps include a district that “constitutes an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.” The Supreme Court heard a case in October brought by a chapter of the NAACP alleging the district harmed black voters, but has yet to issue a decision. “With the primary election procedures rapidly approaching, the appeal before the Supreme Court still pending, and no remedial plan in place, the ideal must bend to the practical,” the South Carolina judges wrote.
  • Two U.S. Army Apache helicopters crashed within 48 hours of each other earlier this week. One helicopter crashed on Wednesday during routine training at an Army base in Colorado, the base announced, injuring two pilots. The incident followed an Apache helicopter crash at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state during training exercises on Monday, which left two pilots with injuries of undisclosed severity. Both incidents are under investigation.
  • The White House Office of Management and Budget on Thursday announced revisions to the U.S. Census questions about race and ethnicity that will take effect for the 2030 head count.* The census will now have one combined question about race and ethnicity, and respondents will be directed to “select all that apply,” encouraging people to choose multiple racial categories if they feel more than one applies. Middle Eastern and North African will be new categories added to the race and ethnicity list, and Hispanic, previously considered only an ethnicity, will be included in the new combined race and ethnicity list.
  • Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, was sentenced on Thursday to 25 years in prison for fraud related to the collapse of his digital currency platform. A Manhattan jury convicted Bankman-Fried in November on seven criminal counts, including wire fraud, conspiracy to commit securities fraud, and money laundering, among other charges, finding that the 31-year-old stole some $10 billion from customers and investors. 

Getting Up to Speed On Julian Assange’s Potential Extradition   

Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at the Westminster Magistrates Court in London on April 11, 2019. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Julian Assange gestures to the media from a police vehicle on his arrival at the Westminster Magistrates Court in London on April 11, 2019. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

There are lots of words one might use to describe the nearly 15-year Julian Assange saga, but perhaps the very least we can say is that “messy” is among them.

The founder of WikiLeaks is facing extradition to the United States from the United Kingdom for 17 charges under the U.S. Espionage Act and one charge of computer misuse, after he published hundreds of thousands of classified U.S. government documents that former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning leaked in 2010. This week, a British court temporarily delayed Assange’s extradition, but set up what could be the final decision point for the man who’s spent the last decade trying to avoid extradition to two different countries. 

To get us up to speed: The story of Assange’s current legal battle begins in 2010, at the height of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manning, then a private first class in the Army, went to WikiLeaks—a website Assange started in 2006 as a repository for leaked documents and emails from governments and organizations around the world—with hundreds of thousands of “significant action” reports detailing U.S. military engagement in Iraq. Manning later submitted classified diplomatic cables and a video of a U.S. Apache helicopter strike on Iraqi insurgents that also killed two Reuters employees. 

As laid out in the statement of guilt that Manning read at a court-martial hearing in 2013, Manning was approached by someone from Wikileaks whom Manning assumed to be Assange. They communicated daily as Manning leaked hundreds of thousands of additional documents, videos, and diplomatic cables related to Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and other sensitive subjects in one of the most significant leaks in U.S. history. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison, a term later commuted to seven years by former President Barack Obama in the final days of his presidency. 

Assange, naturally, became a lightning rod. To some elements of the progressive left and libertarian right, he was a symbol of free speech and the power of journalism—Assange considers himself a journalist—to hold institutions to account. (WikiLeaks does not curate or redact the documents it posts to minimize harm to the subjects, contravening journalistic tradition and ethics around publishing classified and sensitive information.) Others on the right and left saw him as the director of a “criminal enterprise” and guilty of espionage. The Obama administration, which frequently charged leakers, never charged Assange. 

In August 2010, Assange was in Sweden to visit political groups. Two women came forward with rape and molestation allegations against him—which his left-wing defenders were quick to dismiss—and Assange fled to the United Kingdom. He turned himself in in London, where the High Court ruled he’d be extradited to Sweden.

To avoid being sent back to Sweden, Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, in violation of his British bail. Ecuador officially granted him political asylum in 2012, and for seven years, Assange lived in the embassy. For the first three years, British police tried to wait him out, setting up a 24-hour guard at the embassy—as part of an effort called “Operation Pelican”—with the promise to arrest him if he set foot outside the door. But he never did, and eventually, the police packed up their round-the-clock surveillance.

His confinement did not prevent him from staying busy. During his time at the embassy, he had two children with his now-wife, Stella Assange (née Sara González Devant). He kept a cat who sometimes sat in the embassy window wearing a collar and tie (no, really). He inexplicably hosted Lady Gaga. And he burned bridges with many on the previously supportive American left by dumping emails from the Democratic National Committee—which special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation revealed came from a Russian intelligence agency—in the months and weeks before the 2016 election.

Assange angered his hosts, too, accusing Ecuador of violating his human rights. “It’s virtually a prison regime,” Carlos Poveda, Assange’s Ecuadorian lawyer, said in 2018 of Ecuador’s restrictions on Assange’s internet access and insistence that he feed his cat and clean his bathroom. “This new regime goes against his basic human dignity as an asylee.”

In the spring of 2019, the U.S. Justice Department under then-President Donald Trump brought charges against Assange for the Manning leaks, accusing him of “knowingly receiving […] classified records from Manning for the purpose of publicly disclosing them on the WikiLeaks website,” and of “trying to crack” a government password that would have allowed Manning to cover her tracks as the leaker more effectively. The charges, then, were more about his efforts to solicit the documents than the act of publishing them, which critics of the indictment said created potential First Amendment concerns for journalists, particularly those working on national security issues who frequently seek sensitive information from sources for publication.

John Demers, then-head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, denied that they were criminalizing the work of reporters in any way. “Some say that Assange is a journalist and that he should be immune from prosecution for these actions,” he said in May of that year. “The department takes seriously the role of journalists in our democracy and we thank you for it. It is not and has never been the department’s policy to target them for reporting.” He added that Assange was “no journalist.” 

By then, both the Swedish investigations had lapsed and Stockholm was no longer interested in extraditing Assange. But he had skipped bail in the U.K. and British authorities indicated they would arrest him on the U.S. government’s behalf—which is exactly what they did when, in 2019, the Ecuadorian government removed Assange’s asylum status and British police dragged Assange bodily from the embassy.  

Assange has spent nearly the last five years in South London’s Belmarsh prison, first serving a 50-week sentence for jumping bail in 2012 and then awaiting—and repeatedly contesting—extradition to the U.S., which was first approved in 2022 and again in 2023. Assange’s legal team has repeatedly argued that Assange’s U.S. prosecution is politically motivated. There’s “a real risk he may suffer a flagrant denial of justice,” his U.K. lawyer said in a hearing in February.

In what appears to be the denouement of this epic saga, a panel of British high court judges ruled Tuesday that the extradition may finally go forward, provided the U.S. offers “assurances” about some aspects of the prosecution, including that Assange be allowed to mount a First Amendment defense even though he is Australian and not a U.S. citizen, and that the death penalty not be imposed. None of the charges he is facing carry the death penalty, and prosecutors have previously said they will not seek the sentence.

If U.S. prosecutors fail to respond within the three weeks the court required, or their response is not “satisfactory” as determined in a hearing set for May 20, Assange would be allowed his last appeal. The U.S. will “have little difficulty in providing these assurances and Mr. Assange’s extradition will finally be ordered,” argued Nick Vamos, a London-based lawyer who is the former head of extradition at the U.K.’s Crown Prosecution Service. 

But there are still wildcards that may yet complicate efforts to prosecute Assange. The Wall Street Journal reported this week there is quiet talk of a plea deal that would have Assange plead guilty to a lesser charge of mishandling classified documents, which may ultimately allow for his release. Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is urging the U.S. and U.K. governments to return Assange to Australia. “Regardless of where people stand,” Albanese said last month, “this thing cannot just go on and on and on indefinitely.”

Ronna McDaniel Let Go from NBC News

Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, NBC News sacked former Republican National Committee (RNC) Chair Ronna McDaniel, only four days after bringing her on as a paid contributor. Her ouster followed on-air protests from some of NBC News’ and MSNBC’s top talent, including Chuck Todd, Joe Scarborough, and Rachel Maddow. 

We don’t do a lot of media criticism here at The Dispatch. But Steve, Sarah, Jonah, and David French—who all contribute to various mainstream outlets representing a conservative point of view—felt a conversation on today’s Dispatch Podcast roundtable about the extent to which McDaniel’s hiring and firing were correct was worth your time. The gang also takes on the question of whether McDaniel was ultimately fired because she promoted the 2020 election lies—which McDaniel said Sunday on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that she did not believe—or simply because she’s a Republican. Included below are some excerpts from their conversation—edited for clarity and length—and you can listen to the entire podcast entirety here

Should NBC News have hired McDaniel in the first place? 

Steve: The reason I don’t think Romney McDaniel should have been hired by NBC has everything to do with January 6 and her work in supporting Donald Trump’s stolen election claims, and trying to help him remain in office after he’d lost an election and then minimizing January 6. If you look at what she did, from the earliest days, she was boosting the totally unfounded stolen election conspiracy. She pushed election officials in Michigan not to certify the election results and promised to get them lawyers for their trouble. The RNC raised money on Trump’s stolen election stuff. They provided a home for that crazy conspiracy-laden press conference with Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and others, throwing out one false conspiracy after another.

And then, if you remember, after January 6, the RNC put out a statement condemning [former Rep.] Liz Cheney and [Former Rep.] Adam Kinzinger for their role on the January 6 Committee that included the very unfortunate phrase “legitimate political discourse” to describe what had happened on January 6 and around January 6. That was a Ronna Romney McDaniel phrase. She said it first in her own words in an interview with the Washington Post. […] And I think she played a contributing role, not just a bystander role, in preventing the […] peaceful transfer of power [for the first time] in the history of the country. That’s a big deal. I think it was foolish for NBC to hire her given all of that.

Sarah: I want to steelman the other side, which is: Some large percentage of the country’s voters, when asked the question, “Do you believe that Joe Biden was legitimately elected?” will say, “No.” […] That’s a sizable portion of the country. And if you want to have conversations about politics, having someone who represents that perspective is important. And if you want to point out that there’s no evidence for that, or that she lied, or anything else, feel free to do that, but you should be doing that on air, not just not platforming those people—not including that part of the conversation. Because it’s not changing people’s minds to simply pretend it doesn’t exist.

Is January 6 the real objection to McDaniel? 

David: The name that has not come up here is Marc Short. So, Marc Short was hired by NBC a week or two before the Ronna McDaniel news. And for those who don’t know, Marc Short worked with Vice President [Mike] Pence through most of the Trump term and was a quite loyal foot soldier for Mike Pence and for the Trump administration, and then said “no” to the January 6 coup attempt. He’s hired and he’s there and he’s conservative. And so the idea that says, “Well, see, that’s what’s gonna happen to Trump administration officials in the mainstream media. Nobody’s got a chance,” is just wrong. The litmus test in this case seemed to be a legitimate litmus test, which is, “Hey, did you go along with this violent attempt to overthrow and disrupt the peaceful transfer of power?” That’s a pretty legitimate screening question for a new hire, you know? The idea that [NBC News] went ahead and did this anyway, it’s just remarkably bad judgment. 


Jonah: I think a lot of these networks do have tolerance for articulate defenders of conservatism. The problem is that on both the Democratic side and the Republican side and throughout right-wing and left-wing media, issues don’t friggin’ matter anymore. No one’s talking about defending aid to Ukraine from a conservative perspective, or tax rates, or any of that kind of crap. Trump is the issue. I’ve said it a million times on here: When we were all growing up, […] the word “RINO” meant someone who was squishy on abortion, or taxes, or foreign policy, or something like that. It was about issues. Now, by Trump’s own admission, RINO only refers to people insufficiently loyal to Donald Trump. And so you get this weird kind of thing where you have to find people who are supposedly intelligent conservatives who are also willing to talk about Donald Trump as if he’s comrade Stalin. And that’s a really tiny universe of people because it almost demands that you have no integrity or that you lie. And that’s how Ronna McDaniel starts to look attractive.”

Worth Your Time

  • Writing for the Atlantic, Daniel Engber explored the late psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s beautiful legacy of wrongness. “Daniel Kahneman was the world’s greatest scholar of how people get things wrong,” Engber wrote. “And he was a great observer of his own mistakes. He declared his wrongness many times, on matters large and small, in public and in private. He was wrong, he said, about the work that had won the Nobel Prize. He wallowed in the state of having been mistaken; it became a topic for his lectures, a pedagogical ideal. Science has its vaunted self-corrective impulse, but even so, few working scientists—and fewer still of those who gain significant renown—will ever really cop to their mistakes. Kahneman never stopped admitting fault. He did it almost to a fault. Whether this instinct to self-debunk was a product of his intellectual humility, the politesse one learns from growing up in Paris, or some compulsion born of melancholia, I’m not qualified to say. What, exactly, was going on inside his brilliant mind is a matter for his friends, family, and biographers. Seen from the outside, though, his habit of reversal was an extraordinary gift. Kahneman’s careful, doubting mode of doing science was heroic. He got everything wrong, and yet somehow he was always right.”

Presented Without Comment

The Star Tribune: Judge Evicting MyPillow From a Shakopee Warehouse Over Unpaid Rent

Also Presented Without Comment

The Hill: Senators Stand up for Potatoes as a Vegetable Amid Reports of USDA Change

In a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, the senators on Tuesday made the case that the potato is a vegetable, not a grain, pointing to its nutritional benefits, its physical characteristics and its horticultural scientific classification.

“The scientific justification behind the assertion that potatoes are not vegetables is not strong, and there are documented nutritional benefits of potatoes. Therefore, we strongly oppose any reclassification of potatoes to the grain category under the DGAs,” the senators wrote.

Also Also Presented Without Comment

President Joe Biden, speaking to supporters Thursday night at a fundraiser in New York:

Harry Truman said if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. I got one and it bit a secret service agent.

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: Sarah explained how jury selection will work in Trump’s New York trial, Will outlined the holes in the DOJ’s antitrust case against Apple, and Nick weighed whether (🔒) it would matter if Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski left the GOP and became an independent.  
  • On the podcasts: Sarah, Jonah, Steve, and David French discuss the NBC News-Ronna McDaniel dust-up and the nature of the mainstream media on the latest episode of the Dispatch Podcast.
  • On the site: Drucker reports on the Biden campaign’s efforts to target Republicans who supported Nikki Haley, Charlotte looks at who exactly Hamas wants Israel to release from prison as part of any ceasefire, and Kevin Carroll examines what the U.S. can do about ISIS-K in the wake of the Moscow attack.

Let Us Know

When selecting who to bring on as pundits, should “mainstream” news outlets seek to find people who best represent important political factions? Are there better representatives of Donald Trump’s Republican Party than Ronna McDaniel whom NBC News should have hired?

Correction, March 29, 2024: This newsletter originally referred to the Office of Management and Budget as the Office of Budget and Management.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.