Two weeks ago, Wall Street Journal reporter Shane Harris broke an explosive story that received relatively little attention in the national media. Harris found that Peter W. Smith, a Republican operative with a history of partisan skullduggery going back years, sought to obtain hacked Clinton emails on behalf of the Trump presidential campaign. (Smith told people he approached he was working for Michael Flynn.) Smith died shortly after speaking to Harris. Now the Chicago Tribune reports that Smith died of an apparent suicide.
Smith’s suicide note declares, “No foul play whatsoever,” “recent bad turn in health since January, 2017,” “life insurance of $5 million expiring.” It is entirely possible this is true. But there is at least some reason to doubt that Smith decided to take his own life to claim an expiring life-insurance payment due to a sudden turn in his health.
Harris reports that when he spoke with Smith, he saw no indication of bad health or any suicidal behavior:
On the basis of his occupation (“For more than 40 years, Peter directed private equity firms in corporate acquisitions and venture investments, says his obituary”), Smith also appears to have been quite wealthy. It’s possible his fortunes took a turn for the worse. Plus, of course, Trump surrounds himself with some extremely disreputable people as a general habit.
Could Smith’s death, just days after his interview with Harris, be related to the scandal? His role is potentially very significant. Matt Tait, a cybersecurity expert, recounts in detail Smith’s attempt to recruit him to obtain the emails, and his complete lack of concern that he might be entangled in a Russian influence campaign contrary to American interests. Harris reported as well that American officials “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.”
In tandem, these reports deliver both sides of a transaction: an operative purporting to work for Flynn attempting to obtain stolen emails from Russia, and Russians attempting to get them to Flynn. This account is not conclusive evidence of criminal conspiracy, because it is missing evidence that the transaction was completed. It will be harder to find such evidence, should it exist, now that Smith is dead. The FBI will probably want to take a close look at this death.