Rightwing political operative Steve Bannon told a federal court on Friday that he viewed Donald Trump’s longtime associate Roger Stone as an “access point” to WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.
Mr Bannon, who helped guide Mr Trump’s presidential race, said Mr Stone claimed to have a relationship with Julian Assange at the time the WikiLeaks founder was releasing Democratic party emails that had been hacked by Russian operatives.
“He implied and told me he had a relationship with Julian Assange,” Mr Bannon told the jury at the end of the first week of Mr Stone’s trial on accusations of lying to Congress.
Mr Bannon’s testimony, which he said was made after being compelled to appear at the trial, added to a mounting body of evidence that Mr Trump’s inner circle was in the loop on Mr Assange’s efforts to discredit Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, a drive US prosecutors allege was abetted by Russian intelligence.
The extent of Mr Stone’s contacts with WikiLeaks is at the heart of his case, which was brought in January by Robert Mueller, the justice department’s special counsel, and paints him as a conduit for information to the Trump campaign about the WikiLeaks email dumps.
The indictment was the last Mr Mueller announced before he closed his investigation without establishing a criminal conspiracy between Mr Trump and the Russians.
Mr Stone is accused of lying to the House intelligence committee about his contacts with WikiLeaks through two alleged intermediaries, Jerome Corsi and Randy Credico. Mr Credico, a comedian and radio host, testified ahead of Mr Bannon in the federal court in Washington.
Mr Bannon took the stand wearing uniformly dark clothing, answering questions with his hands clasped together or crossed on the table in front of him.
He recounted Mr Trump’s weak polling numbers during the summer of 2016 and described Mr Stone, an operative who got his start in politics working for Richard Nixon, as a man well versed in the “tougher side of politics”.
“When you’re that far behind in the polls you’re going to have to use every tool in the tool box,” he said during questioning by Michael Marando, a prosecutor for the Department of Justice.
Mr Bannon, who was the Trump campaign’s chief executive from August 2016, denied there was ever an “official” access point to WikiLeaks. But he said Mr Stone, a friend of Mr Trump who had left the campaign in 2015, had effectively played that role.
“The campaign had no official access to WikiLeaks or Julian Assange, but Roger would be considered an access point,” he said on cross-examination by Robert Buschel, an attorney for Mr Stone.
Mr Stone has denied all seven counts of obstruction, false statements and witness tampering. His attorneys have argued he had no “corrupt intent” in any of his comments and denied that he ever had any intermediary with WikiLeaks or advance knowledge of its releases.
His defence has been, in part, that his public comments during the 2016 election about his ability to communicate with Mr Assange were simple bragging, and that his later denials to Congress were in fact the truth.