Terry H. Schwadron
A report by The Wall Street Journal that a longtime Republican opposition researcher mounted a campaign to obtain emails allegedly stolen from Hillary Clinton to potentially share them with Michael T. Flynn, the former National Security Adviser, is raising lots of questions.
The reporting, based on conversations with Peter W. Smith, the Republican political operative who has since died, showed that last summer, Smith suggested to those around him that he was working with hackers, presumably Russians, in the intent of sharing whatever he got with Lt. Gen. Flynn, who was then a top adviser in the Trump campaign, possibly through a third party.
Clearly, Flynn is saying nothing, but is said to be talking with the FBI and Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Smith did tell associates he recruited that he was in touch with Flynn’s son, who was also involved in the campaign.
At issue here was an effort to obtain all the emails that Hillary Clinton had ordered removed from her private computer server as personal rather than related to her work as Secretary of State, which were turned over to the State Department. Nevertheless, during the campaign, Donald Trump made the elimination of those emails, estimated to be 30,000 emails, a campaign issue and a probably criminal act. Thus, he told his rallies he wanted her to “lock her up” and they roared the slogan throughout.
Generally, many conservatives didn’t take Clinton’s explanation for why she deleted the emails at face value, and questioned whether the deleted emails could have included some incriminating information that might reveal scandalous behavior of some kind.
At first hearing, this feels as if it could be part of the missing links in pursuit of an investigation of any ties between the Trump campaign and Russians. Obviously, however, there are many leaps in logic and evidence to draw that sort of conclusion, though, for sure, this undoubtedly is adding fuel to the Mueller investigation. For openers, you’d have to believe that there were secrets or classified material or bad stuff in the deleted emails, more than just personal or even political correspondence. They you’d have to believe that the server had been hacked and emails stolen. The State Department’s Inspector General said in May, 2016 that hackers had tried to breach Clinton’s email server
. Then you have to believe that Smith was working “with” or “on behalf of” Flynn, something for which the Journal acknowledged there is no evidence at the moment.
The Journal quoted a supporting, named source as saying, “He said, ‘I’m talking to Michael Flynn about this — if you find anything, can you let me know?’” said Eric York, a computer-security expert from Atlanta who searched hacker forums on Smith’s behalf for people who might have access to the emails. Emails by Mr. Smith and an associate show that his small group considered Flynn and his consulting company, Flynn Intel Group, to be allies.
The response to the report, other than on Rachel Maddow’s show, was muted. A Trump campaign official said that Smith didn’t work for the campaign, and that if Flynn coordinated with him in any way, it would have been in his capacity as a private individual. The White House declined to comment. Clearly, Mueller doesn’t talk about his work.
Generally speaking, those working on such opposition research operate independently, if for no other reason than maintaining an arm’s length distance from campaigns.
If I were Donald Trump, which I am pretty glad that I am not, I would be a little unnerved about this. Mr. Trump has been insistent, no demanding, about the lack of any ties between his campaign and any effort by Russians, hackers, Wikileaks, any of it. By contrast, he has been outspoken about his role in firing James B. Comey Jr. as FBI director, which likely is the subject of an obstruction of justice investigation by Mueller. This Wall Street Journal report, in particular, puts a light on the more shadowy aspects of campaigns and opposition research work. And, under any reading, it’s not positive for him.
Smith’s team included lawyers, technology experts, and an investigator in Europe who spoke Russian. Smith said that he never intended to pay for any emails, and that while he believed the Russians had attempted to hack Clinton’s email server, he said he did not think they were trying to help Mr. Trump win the election.
Smith died about 10 days after talking with the Journal reporter. Flynn, of course, was fired as National Security Adviser earlier this year for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he had had with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador to the U.S.
Once again, it all points to looking to Mueller to make sense, and findings of fact in this messy, extremely political process.