Most of the commentary surrounding the Russia scandal has treated the possibility that Donald Trump’s campaign deliberately colluded with Moscow as remote, unfounded speculation. The new reporting that has broken this weekend suggests instead that this collusion likely did take place. It provides a road map to the, or perhaps a, likely avenue through which this occurred.
The figure carrying out the operation in question was Peter W. Smith, who died at the age of 81 earlier this year. Smith is hardly a lone kook. He’s an established Republican donor with a demonstrated history in financing ethically murky investigations, such as paying Arkansas state troopers for stories of Bill Clinton’s sexual dalliances.
Smith surfaced earlier in the week in an explosive Wall Street Journal report by Shane Harris, which Harris followed up on Friday night. What really underscores the significance of Harris’s reporting, though, is a detailed account, also published Friday night, by Matt Tait, a British cybersecurity expert who dealt extensively with Smith. Tait’s report makes it clear that Smith had access to Michael Flynn, at the very least, and was working not only to obtain stolen Clinton emails but also to hide the Trump campaign’s involvement.
Tait had established some expertise analyzing Clinton’s emails; Smith, who said he had been contacted by someone who possessed a cache of emails from Clinton’s private server, wanted help validating them. As Tait explains, he warned Smith that Russia had been conducting an attack on the U.S. elections, but Smith appeared completely unconcerned about it. Smith tried to hire Tait for his project and showed him a document creating an independent-looking organization to try to acquire the stolen emails. The document, Tait reports, “detailed a company Smith and his colleagues had set up as a vehicle to conduct the research: ‘KLS Research’, set up as a Delaware LLC ‘to avoid campaign reporting,’ and listing four groups who were involved in one way or another.” This certainly appears like an attempt to mask the Trump campaign’s involvement in the plot.
The document listed a series of high-level Trump campaign officials: Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis, Lt. Gen. Flynn, and Lisa Nelson. Bannon and Conway, contacted by the Journal, deny any involvement with Smith. But Smith’s comments to Tait indicate a fairly close understanding of Trump campaign internal dynamics. It is possible he was bluffing, but Smith seemed to be displaying authentic insider credentials.
The key to understanding the significance of this report is to put it together with a sentence from Harris’s first story on this in the Journal, which reports that U.S. investigators “have examined reports from intelligence agencies that describe Russian hackers discussing how to obtain emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server and then transmit them to Mr. Flynn via an intermediary.”
So, according to Harris’s reporting, Russians were trying to transmit emails from Clinton’s server. Tait is describing in detail a Republican operative trying to obtain stolen emails from Russia. So we have evidence both of the campaign’s request and Russian efforts to fulfill the request.
Smith is deceased (at an old age, there is no grounds for suspicion about the cause of his death), but Michael Flynn, a figure he reportedly worked for, is very much with us and facing significant legal jeopardy. Flynn’s lawyer has said he has “a story to tell.” This might be part of the story.