In the midst of the 2016 campaign, a veteran GOP opposition researcher who said he had ties to ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn contacted hackers hoping to obtain emails that he believed Russian operatives had hacked from Hillary Clinton’s personal server, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
Peter W. Smith reached out to computer security experts in the hopes of gaining access to the email trove and explicitly outlined his connection with Flynn in his recruiting emails, according to the report.
Smith, who died at the age of 81 just 10 days after the Journal interviewed him, told the newspaper that he never explicitly said that Flynn was involved with the project. Flynn and the White House did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment, and a Trump campaign representative said Smith had no involvement in the campaign.
In one recruiting email reviewed by the newspaper, Smith said Flynn’s son, Michael G. Flynn, was helping with the effort. In another, Jonathan Safron, a law student who worked for Smith, included Flynn’s consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, at the top of a list of websites of people working with the team.
“He said, ‘I’m talking to Michael Flynn about this—if you find anything, can you let me know?’” Eric York, one computer security expert who said he searched hacker forums on Smith’s behalf to try to dig up the emails, told the Journal.
What Smith hoped to unearth were the 33,000 emails that Clinton has said she deleted from her private email server because they were personal in nature, and which Trump infamously urged Russia to find and release during a July 2016 campaign rally.
Trump and his defenders in the media and his administration have referred to the federal investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election as a “witch hunt” intended to hurt his presidency. They insist there is no evidence of collusion between Russian operatives and Trump campaign associates.
Smith acknowledged that the emails, if they existed, would likely have been hacked by Russian operatives. He ultimately received some emails from hacker groups prior to the election, he told the Journal, but urged those groups to pass the emails along to WikiLeaks so he would not have to personally vouch for their authenticity. Those emails have never surfaced, according to the report.
Though the bulk of the 2016 cyberhacking efforts focused on Democratic targets, some Republicans, including Smith himself, were apparently hacked as well.
Smith told the New York Times last December that he was unaware his emails had been hacked and published on the website DCLeaks.com until the newspaper’s reporter informed him.
“I’m not upset at all,” he said in a phone call with the Times. “I try in my communications, quite frankly, not to say anything that would be embarrassing if made public.”
Smith, a Chicago investment banker, has had his hand in previous messy political dealings involving the Clintons. During the 1990s, he helped subsidize a large-scale effort led by conservative donors to procure and publish damaging information about then-President Bill Clinton.
The Texas Observer reported at the time that Smith spent “$80,000 on private detectives and to subsidize American Spectator reporters in a hunt for the black baby that Clinton was rumored to have sired.”
He was a collaborator on what came to be known as the “Arkansas Project,” in addition to multimillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, its main funder, and David Brock, then a reporter for the Spectator. Brock has since become one of the Clintons’ most ardent public defenders.
This post has been updated.