This Is Big

National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, left, Senior Adviser to President Donald Trump Jared Kushner, center, and Vice President Mike Pence watch as Trump signs his first executive order in the Oval Office of the Wh... National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, left, Senior Adviser to President Donald Trump Jared Kushner, center, and Vice President Mike Pence watch as Trump signs his first executive order in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) MORE LESS
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This is big.

As you may have heard, this evening The Wall Street Journal published a major follow-up to its story from Thursday which described the work of a GOP money man and oppo research guy, the late Peter W. Smith, who was trying to get hacked emails from Russia and held himself out to be in contact with disgraced Trump advisor Michael Flynn. On its face, the big new break in this follow-up story is a new document from Smith. The document is from what is described as a package of recruiting materials Smith was using to enlist cybersecurity talent in his operation. The document listed key officials in the Trump campaign. These were apparently people Smith claimed he was in touch with or working with, though precisely how or why they were mentioned is not entirely clear.

Here’s the key passage from the Journal article

Officials identified in the document include Steve Bannon, now chief strategist for President Donald Trump; Kellyanne Conway, former campaign manager and now White House counselor; Sam Clovis, a policy adviser to the Trump campaign and now a senior adviser at the Agriculture Department; and retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who was a campaign adviser and briefly was national security adviser in the Trump administration.

A few caveats are in order.

From the Journal reporting at least it is not totally clear what Smith intended by listing these people. It’s also possible that Smith was freelancing. There are lots of people in the orbit of major campaigns puffing up their connections to top players. The Journal article has Bannon denying any knowledge of Smith. Conway says she knew Smith from GOP politics over the years but was never in contact with him about this.

That’s the story as presented in the Journal.

What is also clear in the Journal article is that the source of the new information was almost certainly a British national and cybersecurity expert named Matt Tait. I would go through why this seems clear. But about an hour after the Journal article was published, Tait himself followed up with what I would say is the big piece of the night in the Lawfare blog.

Tait provides a much more detailed first-person account of his dealings with Smith. You’ll want to read it yourself. But the gist is that he’s a cybersecurity expert, he got press attention with some online analysis he did about the DNC hacking. He later got contacted by Smith – apparently because Smith was looking for someone to authenticate purported, hacked Clinton emails he’d been offered. Tait didn’t at first know just what Smith was after or who he was. But once he got into a conversation with Smith and found out someone was offering him the Clinton emails, he wanted to know more.

One critical part of the story is that Tait never saw the purported emails, genuine or not. So he is not in a position to say what they were or who was offering them to Smith.

The critical points Tait reveals are these. 1) That in his conversations with Smith and his associates it was clear that they did not care if the sources of the emails were Russian intelligence officers or if the emails had been hacked by Russian intelligence. They were entirely indifferent to this reality. They didn’t care. 2) Smith discussed what seemed to be highly detailed and confidential information about the inner workings of the Trump campaign, details that made Tait think that Smith wasn’t just some name dropper freelancing but actually had deep ties into the campaign and especially with Mike Flynn.

Let me excerpt two key passages …

Over the course of our conversations, one thing struck me as particularly disturbing. Smith and I talked several times about the DNC hack, and I expressed my view that the hack had likely been orchestrated by Russia and that the Kremlin was using the stolen documents as part of an influence campaign against the United States. I explained that if someone had contacted him via the “Dark Web” with Clinton’s personal emails, he should take very seriously the possibility that this may have been part of a wider Russian campaign against the United States. And I said he need not take my word for it, pointing to a number of occasions where US officials had made it clear that this was the view of the U.S. intelligence community as well.

Smith, however, didn’t seem to care. From his perspective it didn’t matter who had taken the emails, or their motives for doing so. He never expressed to me any discomfort with the possibility that the emails he was seeking were potentially from a Russian front, a likelihood he was happy to acknowledge. If they were genuine, they would hurt Clinton’s chances, and therefore help Trump.

The second passage is in regards to Smith’s knowledge of the inner-workings of the Trump campaign …

Although it wasn’t initially clear to me how independent Smith’s operation was from Flynn or the Trump campaign, it 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 of Flynn’s deep dislike of DNI Clapper, whom Flynn blamed for his dismissal by President Obama. Smith told of Flynn’s moves to position himself to become CIA Director under Trump, but also that Flynn had been persuaded that the Senate confirmation process would be prohibitively difficult. He would instead therefore become National Security Advisor should Trump win the election, Smith said. He also told of a deep sense of angst even among Trump loyalists in the campaign, saying “Trump often just repeats whatever he’s heard from the last person who spoke to him,” and expressing the view that this was especially dangerous when Trump was away.

Later in the piece, Tait returns to the point when discussing the aforementioned document reported by the Journal.

As I mentioned above, Smith and his associates’ knowledge of the inner workings of the campaign were insightful beyond what could be obtained by merely attending Republican events or watching large amounts of news coverage. But one thing I could not place, at least initially, was whether Smith was working on behalf of the campaign, or whether he was acting independently to help the campaign in his personal capacity.

Then, a few weeks into my interactions with Smith, he sent me a document, ostensibly a cover page for a dossier of opposition research to be compiled by Smith’s group, and which purported to clear up who was involved. The document was entitled “A Demonstrative Pedagogical Summary to be Developed and Released Prior to November 8, 2016,” and dated September 7. It detailed a company Smith and his colleagues had set up as a vehicle to conduct the research: “KLS Research”, set up as a Delaware LLC “to avoid campaign reporting,” and listing four groups who were involved in one way or another.

The first group, entitled “Trump Campaign (in coordination to the extent permitted as an independent expenditure)” listed a number of senior campaign officials: Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis, Lt. Gen. Flynn and Lisa Nelson.

The largest group named a number of “independent groups / organizations / individuals / resources to be deployed.” My name appears on this list. At the time, I didn’t recognize most of the others; however, several made headlines in the weeks immediately prior to the election.

My perception then was that the inclusion of Trump campaign officials on this document was not merely a name-dropping exercise. 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. Indeed, the document says as much in black and white.

The combination of Smith’s deep knowledge of the inner workings of the campaign, this document naming him in the “Trump campaign” group, and the multiple references to needing to avoid campaign reporting suggested to me that the group was formed with the blessing of the Trump campaign. In the Journal’s story this evening, several of the individuals named in the document denied any connection to Smith, and it’s certainly possible that he was a big name-dropper and never really represented anyone other than himself. If that’s the case, Smith talked a very good game.

As you can see, a good bit of this is how Tait interpreted what Smith and Smith’s associates told him. Tait is a British national. So it is not unreasonable to assume he may not have a perfect grasp of all the nuances of US politics, just as you or I wouldn’t of British politics. But if the facts he alleges are broadly accurate – and I have no reason to think they are not – he at least makes a pretty good case that Smith had some pretty strong lines into the highest echelons of the Trump campaign and held himself out as operating on the campaign’s behalf.

What apparently prompted Tait to come forward was what we noted yesterday was likely the biggest news in the first of the two Journal pieces: the report that the US government had intelligence showing Russian operatives discussing passing hacked emails to Michael Flynn via an intermediary.

Now what does this all mean?

This reads to me like the kind of story that rapidly shakes out a lot of new information. Every big press outfit in the country must be yanking on all the dangling threads even as I write. This certainly sounds like just the kind of attempt to work with the Russian subversion campaign that many have long suspected. It connects up with people at the highest level of the Trump campaign. It looks like strong evidence of attempted collusion by people at least in the orbit of the Trump campaign and quite likely in communication with people at the highest echelons of the campaign.

But did it succeed? Did they make contact? If there was a big picture quid pro quo between Russia and the Trump campaign why were they reaching out to Smith by such circuitous methods, ones that left Smith – if we can credit his account – feeling he needed to authenticate the emails? One thing that is worth noting, though it can be hard to keep track of in all these details, is that emails purportedly hacked from Clinton’s personal email server never appeared during the campaign or since. So at least in this specific regard, what Smith and his cronies were up to didn’t pan out, for whatever reason.

To be clear, the questions I’m raising here don’t mean this didn’t happen or doesn’t matter. Far from it. They are just basic questions anyone trying to get to the bottom of this would need to ask. It is possible that the big overarching story turns out to be something we’ve discussed here on several occasions: a scenario in which Trump himself didn’t cross any lines but he knew others near him did or tried. Or maybe it’s much more. What we can say now is that the Trump/Russia collusion story just moved dramatically closer to the Trump inner circle.

I suspect we’re about to learn quite a bit more about this very soon.

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