The Wall Street Journal published two explosive reports detailing the actions of Republican operative Peter W. Smith during last year’s presidential election. According to the WSJ, Smith was seeking to acquire stolen Hillary Clinton emails from Russian hackers. Smith told associates that he discussed his activities with a key member of the Trump campaign, Michael Flynn.
The Trump campaign did not deny the connection, telling the WSJ that “if Mr. Flynn coordinated with him in any way, it would have been in his capacity as a private individual.”
Smith could be the missing link in the Trump-Russia probe that is now being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The FBI, CIA, NSA and Director of National Intelligence have publicly stated that Russia hacked emails to help Trump win the election. The extent to which the Trump campaign collaborated with Russia in that effort is unknown. (Trump and his advisers have denied involvement.)
But beyond his alleged connections to Flynn, Smith has deep ties to the Trump orbit and the Republican establishment.
Smith was a longtime supporter and confidant to Newt Gingrich, a key member of the Trump campaign
“[W]hen Peter W. Smith talks, Newt Gingrich listens.” That was the introduction to a 1995 article in Crain’s Chicago Business about Gingrich’s “Illinois patrons.”
Smith was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic backers of Gingrich. The article details how Smith contributed “more than $109,000…since 1989 to Mr. Gingrich and his affiliated interests.” He raised even more money. It made Smith the “No. 1 financial backer of Mr. Gingrich, and one of the top 20 contributors nationwide.”
Smith, who worked in finance, also hosted “lunches in his Wrigley Building offices every month or so for visiting GOP luminaries, such as Mr. Gingrich.”
A couple of decades later, Gingrich was a top adviser to Trump and his campaign. Smith was seeking to connect with Russian hackers to obtain emails he believed were stolen from Hillary Clinton.
Smith had ties to Breitbart, the online news outlet run by Trump’s chief strategist
While Smith’s ties to Gingrich goes back decades, he more recently became acquainted with Matt Boyle, the Washington Political Editor of Breitbart. That publication was run by Steve Bannon until he left, first to join the Trump campaign and then the White House as chief strategist.
Smith’s connection to Boyle was revealed, ironically, when his emails were hacked and released on a website called DC Leaks. The emails have been taken offline but are accessible through archive.org.
Smith was collaborating with Boyle on efforts to try to force out Paul Ryan as speaker, a cause shared by Bannon.
Boyle was closely connected to the Trump campaign. After Trump was elected, Boyle was granted a rare Oval Office interview.
Smith has a history of funding dirty tricks against the Clintons
Smith’s attempt to connect with Russian hackers wasn’t the first time he sought to cross ethical lines to damage someone with the last name Clinton. In the 1990s, Smith “was behind the so-called ‘Troopergate’ affair, in which four state troopers who served on Mr. Clinton’s security detail when he was Governor of Arkansas charged that he had used them to procure women for sex.”
Smith brought the story to David Brock, then a right-wing reporter with the American Spectator. Eventually, Smith admitted in 1998 “to the Chicago Sun-Times that he had spent about $ 80,000 to get negative information about Clinton into the mainstream press.” The payments went to the troopers and Brock.
The story “led to the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton and to special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s investigation into whether Clinton had sex in the White House with an intern,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Just as he told the WSJ about his efforts to collaborate with the Russians to obtain Clinton emails, Smith claimed he was acting independently.
Smith claimed a connection to the Trump campaign
Smith’s history suggests he may have been in contact with the Trump campaign. This is also consistent with what Smith told potential collaborators as he sought hacked emails.
In a document Smith used for recruiting others to the effort, Smith listed four members of the Trump campaign: Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis and Michael Flynn. He said that he was working “in coordination to the extent permitted as an independent expenditure” with the officials.
Bannon denied ever hearing of Smith, but we know that Smith was in contact with one of his most prominent reporters. Conway admitted she knew Smith but but said she hadn’t spoken to him recently. Clovis and Flynn did not comment.
Smith had information that suggests he was in contact with the Trump campaign
Smith’s activities were exposed after he contacted a UK security expert named Matt Tait. In a blog post detailing his interactions with Smith, Tait says Smith seemed well-informed about the inner workings of the Trump campaign.
Although it wasn’t initially clear to me how independent Smith’s operation was from Flynn or the Trump campaign, it was immediately apparent that Smith was both well connected within the top echelons of the campaign and he seemed to know both Lt. Gen. Flynn and his son well. Smith routinely talked about the goings on at the top of the Trump team, offering deep insights into the bizarre world at the top of the Trump campaign. Smith told of Flynn’s deep dislike of DNI Clapper, whom Flynn blamed for his dismissal by President Obama. Smith told of Flynn’s moves to position himself to become CIA Director under Trump, but also that Flynn had been persuaded that the Senate confirmation process would be prohibitively difficult. He would instead therefore become National Security Advisor should Trump win the election, Smith said.
This is, of course, exactly what happened. (After being named National Security Adviser, Flynn was forced to resign after lying about his conversations with Russian officials.)
Smith set up a shell company ‘to avoid campaign reporting’
According to Tait, Smith said he set up a shell corporation in Delaware, KLS Research, “to avoid campaign reporting.” This comment suggests Smith may have been paid by an entity operating under the Federal Election Commission that is required to disclose their expenditures. This could mean either a campaign or a Super PAC.
The cause of Smith’s death is unknown
Smith died about 10 days after talking to the Wall Street Journal reporter Shane Harris. While there is no evidence of foul play, and Smith was 81 years old, the cause of his death is unknown and not discussed in his obituary.
On MSNBC, Harris said he tried to find out how Smith died. “I should say we do not know how he died. We made multiple attempts, both with family members and with associates of his, as well as government officials in the town where he lived, to try and determine his cause of death, and we were unsuccessful,” Harris said.