The missing link is dead

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The missing link is dead

When it comes to the Russia investigation, you've probably heard a lot about Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Donald Trump Jr.

But what about Peter W. Smith?

Smith was a longtime Republican opposition researcher with ties to Flynn. At nearly 80 years old he launched a secret effort to obtain Hillary Clinton's emails.

He may be the missing link between the Trump campaign and the Russian hacking of Clinton emails.

And he's dead.

The knowns and the unknown

We know that Russia hacked emails from Democrats connected to Clinton and then released them to damage her campaign. The intelligence community concluded exactly that in a report released in January 2017. Robert Mueller later indicted numerous Russian operatives for their involvement in the scheme.

We also know that the Trump campaign was interested in dirt on Clinton obtained by the Russian government. Donald Trump Jr. released his email correspondence with Rob Goldstone, the agent for the son of a Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin. Goldstone told Trump Jr. that the Russian government had information that "would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father."

"If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer," Trump Jr. replied.

What has not been established is whether the Trump campaign or those connected to it had direct involvement in either the hacking of the emails or the timing of their release.

Peter W. Smith might be the missing piece.

Smith’s story

The Wall Street Journal first reported on Smith's activities in June 2017. In an interview, Smith gave reporter Shane Harris his version of the story.

Smith told the Wall Street Journal that he "assembled a group of technology experts, lawyers and a Russian-speaking investigator based in Europe to acquire emails the group theorized might have been stolen from the private server Mrs. Clinton used as secretary of state."

Smith claimed his focus was on the 33,000 emails Clinton deleted from her servers after deeming them private. He believed those emails "might have been obtained by hackers and that they actually concerned official matters Mrs. Clinton wanted to conceal." In his search, he "found five groups of hackers who claimed to possess Mrs. Clinton’s deleted emails, including two groups he determined were Russians."

According to Smith, he reviewed emails these groups claimed to have obtained but couldn't authenticate them. He told the hackers to send the emails to Wikileaks. None of the 33,000 emails Smith said he was trying to obtain were ever released by Wikileaks, although other hacked emails were released by Wikileaks at critical moments of the campaign.

The Trump campaign connection

Smith told others he was working on the project with Michael Flynn and his consulting company. Flynn, at the time, was a top adviser to the Trump campaign and was named Trump's National Security Adviser after the election.

Flynn was forced to resign for lying about his communications with the Russian government. He later pled guilty to lying to the federal investigators and is currently cooperating with the Mueller probe.

"I’m talking to Michael Flynn about this—if you find anything, can you let me know?" Smith allegedly told Eric York, a computer-security expert who helped Smith with his operation.  

Notably, there are "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."

Matt Tait, a cybersecurity expert, wrote about his experience talking with Smith, who had contacted him for assistance:

[I]t 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 Tait that he set up a private company to conduct his operation to "avoid campaign reporting."

In response to inquiries from the Wall Street Journal, the Trump campaign didn't deny that Flynn coordinated with Smith. "[I]f Mr. Flynn coordinated with him in any way, it would have been in his capacity as a private individual," a Trump campaign official told the Wall Street Journal.

The alt-right connection

Smith also enlisted Charles Johnson, a notorious right-wing troll who embraces white nationalists, in his scheme. Politico reported last July that Smith used Johnson to "help him understand the workings of the internet and make contacts in Trump’s orbit." Johnson suggested that Smith contact Andrew Auernheimer, known as "Weev," a white supremacist and former webmaster for the Neo-nazi site, The Daily Stormer.

Johnson also is a link between Smith and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Johnson visited Assange in London in the Summer of 2017. Johnson recently shuttered his website, GotNews, without explanation.

What was Smith really up to?

Was Smith honest with the Wall Street Journal about his activities?

A follow-up report published in the paper this week raises serious questions. Smith "went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the privacy and secrecy of his projects, according to emails and court records reviewed by the Wall Street Journal and a person familiar with the matter."

To conceal his activities, Smith used a dummy email account under the name of "Robert Tyler." Smith gave his associates access to the account, and they communicated with each other by saving drafts, rather than sending emails. He also had a special phone number he used for sensitive matters and another email account which was encrypted.

Why would someone who took such extensive measures to keep his activities secret, reveal the truth to a reporter?

The Russia connection

Smith's story to the Wall Street Journal in 2017 was that he was interested in emails that were already hacked, possibly by the Russians. But new information, currently under review by Mueller, suggests Smith's activities were far more extensive.

According emails reviewed by the Wall Street Journal from the "Robert Tyler" account, Smith raised $100,000 from wealthy donors and kicked in another $50,000 of his own money. The cash was then wired to a fund for "Russian students."

The author of one key email identified himself as “ROB”:

This $100k total with the $50k received from you will allow us to fund the Washington Scholarship Fund for the Russian students for the promised $150K. The students are very pleased with the email releases they have seen, and are thrilled with their educational advancement opportunities

Smith was in contact with a programmer named Royal O’Brien, who denies he sent the email.

There is no evidence a "Washington Scholarship Fund" for Russian students exists. So who received the money? And what was it for?

BuzzFeed reported in August that the "FBI suspects" Smith "paid hackers who provided him with emails."

Peter W. Smith is dead

It would be nice to ask Smith some of these questions, but that won't be possible. Smith died on May 14, 2017 -- just 10 days after he was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.

The official cause of death is suicide. He was found with a bag over his head in a hotel room in Minnesota near the Mayo Clinic. He left a note, which was detailed by the Chicago Tribune:

In the note recovered by police, Smith apologized to authorities and said that "NO FOUL PLAY WHATSOEVER" was involved in his death. He wrote that he was taking his own life because of a "RECENT BAD TURN IN HEALTH SINCE JANUARY, 2017" and timing related "TO LIFE INSURANCE OF $5 MILLION EXPIRING."

Did Smith commit suicide?

Buried at the end the latest Wall Street Journal story is a nugget that appears to cast doubt on the official story.

The paper talked to Charles Ortel, a retired Wall Street executive who said he spoke with Smith a few hours before his death. Ortel said the two talked about a new project related to the Clinton Foundation. Smith, Ortel said, sounded excited, and began brainstorming who to contact and how to move the project forward.

"I came away from that conversation saying this is great. We’re going to make progress," Ortel said. In other words, it was not the kind of conversation you'd expect to have with someone planning to commit suicide in a few hours.

Mueller digs in

One person who is very interested in Smith is Robert Mueller.

According to the Wall Street Journal, "[a]ssociates of Mr. Smith have been interviewed by investigators or summoned before a grand jury as recently as this summer." One individual involved in Smith's efforts to obtain hacked email, John Szobocsan, was interviewed three times by Mueller's investigators and appeared before the grand jury in August.

Investigators are also looking at Smith's banking transactions. He took out large amounts of cash while pursuing the Clinton emails. Investigators "are trying to follow the money to learn whether Smith paid anyone connected with the Russian government."

Thanks for reading!

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