The Holy Quest for the 30,000 Emails

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen a rush of new data points on the Russia collusion front. But there’s one point which wasn’t new to me precisely but reminded me of something I’d lost focus on as the Russia/collusion story has heated up. That is, the GOP quest for Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 deleted emails.

Let’s go back more than two years ago, to March 2015. That’s when news of Hillary Clinton’s ‘private email server’ first came out. Closely coupled with that news was Clinton’s announcement that her lawyers had separated out the personal from professional emails, turned over the latter to the State Department and destroyed the former. I remember this quite clearly and quite painfully because, as I wrote here at the time, I knew this was classic Clinton and would lead to endless bad news. Not illegal, probably not wrong but exactly the kind of decision that would lead to months and years of horrible press and political self-inflicted wounds.

That past is past. But here’s what’s still relevant. On the right, the quest for the 30,000 emails became something on the level of the quest for the Holy Grail. Surely, since it was Clinton, the 30,000 emails contained records of countless crimes and embarrassments. If only you could find them, Clinton would be destroyed. Probably partisans of any stripe would never believe that the filtering was legit. But of course Clinton hating brought all of it to a new level. What’s occurred to me in the last few weeks is that this obsession may have been the origin of the later hacks of the DNC and John Podesta.

Let me walk you through what I consider a hypothesis.

Recently I did a bit of reporting which confirmed for me that in Trumpland and the RNC world and really all redoubts of professional Republicanism in late 2015 the 30,000 emails were the thing. Republicans were obsessed with getting those emails and were convinced that someone, somewhere, perhaps a foreign government had hacked those emails and had them. There were even reports of various grifters and shady characters saying they could produce them for money.

In other words, even if Hillary had deleted them, someone probably had copies because they had hacked her servers before the 30,000 emails were deleted. It was just a matter of finding out where they were. One thing that got a huge amount of attention on the right was former acting CIA Director Mike Morell (later a top Clinton surrogate) telling Hugh Hewitt and others that he felt confident that the major foreign intelligence services likely had copies of Clinton’s emails from her private server. Morell’s claim was a big deal because he wasn’t a GOP partisan. And yet he seemed certain that foreign intelligence services, at least the most able, likely had those emails. After all, who better to a top professional CIA veteran to make such a judgment?

Now let’s fast forward.

We still haven’t gotten nearly to the bottom of the story of Peter W. Smith, the longtime GOP operative and oppo researcher who put together some kind of team looking for the 30,000 emails and was happy to get them from Russia. He was allegedly either working with or in contact with Mike Flynn and we now know he took his own life shortly after talking to The Wall Street Journal. But that’s beside the point for the moment. The key point in my mind is we’re all thinking about the DNC emails, the Podesta emails, and so forth, perhaps how to coordinate or time their release. But for Smith (and possibly Flynn) the real deal were those 30,000 emails from Clinton’s private server. He thought Russians had them and was moving mountains to get them.

And that’s not all. Remember that when Trump made that crazy comment asking Russia to hack Hillary’s emails it was the 30,000 emails he mentioned. That was on July 27th, 2016: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you can find the 33,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

I remember when I heard this at the time, it seemed like a throw away line. After all, the server had been in FBI custody for months or a year. How could Russia find them? To me the key is that it showed how big that obsession still was and had been for some time.  That was where the blockbuster was going to be found. I don’t think it’s terribly surprising that Republicans would think this. And I think it’s demonstrably the case that the belief that Clinton’s server had been hacked and that someone somewhere had those emails was a near obsession among Republicans in late 2015 and through election day 2016.

Here’s the part that is speculation, but I think speculation that is worth having in mind as the Russia story unfolds.

It appears that the key hacks of the DNC and Podesta happened in the Spring of 2016. If anything close to what we think Russia was up to in the 2016 cycle is true, I think it is highly probable that Russian intelligence services would have known about the hunger for the 30,000 emails in GOP circles. It was quite public. No spying would have been necessary – just a close read of the right wing press. If they were in touch with people in Trump’s orbit, certainly they would have heard about it. Republicans were hungry to find those emails and for all the reasons we know about, it seems like Russia would have been happy to satisfy that hunger.

But there was a problem. The Clinton server had been in FBI custody since early 2015. It was offline and un-hackable, somewhere in an FBI forensic facility.

Did Russia hack Clinton’s private email server? We’ll probably never know. But I think the fact that those emails never appeared during the campaign makes it highly unlikely that they had them. Otherwise why not release them?

So no matter how good the Russians were at hacking, they couldn’t get the emails that Republicans wanted so badly. But what about the next best thing? Hacking the DNC, John Podesta and others. I think it is worth considering whether this is how things may have unfolded. I am not suggesting that any American told Russian intelligence operatives to hack the DNC and Podesta. That’s not really necessary. But I think it’s quite possible that the obsession with the 30,000 Clinton emails was what spurred the latter hacking of the DNC and Podesta. There was a desire and it would fit well into Russia’s larger intelligence operation to satisfy that desire.