There’s growing evidence of a possible collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government before the 2016 election, as well as Trump’s possible violation of campaign finance and disclosure laws, several recent news reports reveal.
A report published by the Wall Street Journal on Thursday found that a Republican operative, Peter W. Smith, led an effort seeking 33,000 emails Hillary Clinton deleted from her private server. Smith believed the emails must have contained official matters and were stolen by Russian hackers before they were deleted. In the effort to seek these emails, Smith implied that he was working with Michael Flynn, then a close advisor to Trump who also later became his national security advisor. (Flynn resigned from the post in February after less than one month in office, following reports of him discussing U.S. sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador.)
The revelation is significant, the Wall Street Journal noted, because U.S. investigators have found reports that Russian hackers were discussing how to obtain Clinton’s emails and hand them over to Flynn through an intermediary. It’s still not clear what or who that intermediary was, and if it was Smith and the group he was working with.
Smith told the Journal that he worked with five groups of hackers who said they had Clinton’s deleted emails, two of which were Russians. “We knew the people who had these were probably around the Russian government,” Smith said.
The second report, published by the Journal on Friday evening, found that Smith specifically named multiple individuals in the Trump campaign — who are now White House officials — in a recruiting document for the group. A document dated September 7, 2016, which according to the Journal was around the time Smith began his efforts to obtain Clinton’s emails, contained a section titled “Trump Campaign.” That section named: Steve Bannon, the White House’s chief strategist; Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president; Sam Clovis, senior White House adviser at the Agriculture Department; Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor for less than a month; and Flynn’s son, Michael G. Flynn Jr.
“I tried to stress this point: if this dark web contact is a front for the Russian government, you really don’t want to play this game. But they were not discouraged.”
Bannon told the Journal that he did not know Smith or the limited-liability company he formed, called KLS Research. Conway said that she knew Smith but had not talked to him during the campaign. The White House did not comment, nor did the others named in the document.
The Journal reported that it’s not clear why these individuals were named in the document, or that Smith coordinated with the Trump campaign. But the section that names them includes the caveat that the work was being done “in coordination to the extent permitted as an independent expenditure,” a likely reference to restrictions from campaign finance and disclosure laws.
Matt Tait, a cybersecurity expert, shared the document with the Journal, and and said he was approached by Smith last summer. On Friday evening, he published a story on the legal blog, Lawfare, titled “The Time I Got Recruited to Collude with the Russians.” The story reveals a lot about Smith’s group and his persistence to obtain Clinton’s emails — which he had no proof were actually hacked or contained official matters — regardless of who the hackers might be, including the Russian government.
According to Tait, Smith told him someone from the “Dark Web” who had Clinton’s emails contacted him, and he simply needed Tait to verify their authenticity. Tait tried to explain his concern to Smith, to no avail.
In my conversations with Smith and his colleague, I tried to stress this point: if this dark web contact is a front for the Russian government, you really don’t want to play this game. But they were not discouraged. They appeared to be convinced of the need to obtain Clinton’s private emails and make them public, and they had a reckless lack of interest in whether the emails came from a Russian cut-out. Indeed, they made it quite clear to me that it made no difference to them who hacked the emails or why they did so, only that the emails be found and made public before the election.
Tait wrote that he wasn’t sure how closely connected Smith’s quest was to the Trump campaign, but it was clear that Smith knew both Flynn and his son very well. Smith also knew much of what was going on at the Trump campaign, like that Flynn was being considered for National Security Advisor, and discussed it regularly. His inside knowledge was “insightful beyond what could be obtained by merely attending Republican events or watching large amounts of news coverage,” Tait noted.
The document he shared with the Journal, which listed several Trump campaign advisors and now White House officials, noted that KLS Research was set up as a Delaware LLC “to avoid campaign reporting.”
“My perception then was that the inclusion of Trump campaign officials on this document was not merely a name-dropping exercise,” Tait wrote. “This document was about establishing a company to conduct opposition research on behalf of the campaign, but operating at a distance so as to avoid campaign reporting.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have previously found that Russian hackers were attempting to give emails to Flynn, Sr. through an intermediary. Now, there may be more proof than ever before.
Smith never published the Clinton emails he claimed he had, and he said he handed them over to Wikileaks, encouraging them to do so instead. Wikileaks has not published these emails or confirmed that it has them.
Former FBI Director and Special Counsel Bob Muller is currently investigating Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Donald Trump and his administration have repeatedly denied any possible collusion. Earlier this week, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the whole story a “hoax” and called Trump’s connections to the Russian government “fake news.”