A sequel to Thursday’s Journal story that had anti-Trumpers buzzing about evidence of campaign collusion with hackers, even though … there was no hard evidence. To recap, a Republican operative named Peter Smith went hunting online for Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, contacting hackers — some of whom he believed to be Russian — to see if they had them and throwing around Mike Flynn’s name in the process. Was that proof that Smith was working for Flynn and Team Trump? Er, no. But according to the WSJ, U.S intelligence has evidence of “Russian hackers discussing how to obtain emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server and then transmit them to Mr. Flynn via an intermediary.” It wasn’t just Smith chattering about Flynn and hacking, in other words, it was the bad guys too. Hmmmm.
Last night the Journal published a follow-up. As part of his hacker outreach, Smith was recruiting cyberexperts who might help him authenticate the Clinton emails if and when he finally obtained them. Smith sent some documents related to his project to a British expert, and named Mike Flynn in the cover letter. But not just Flynn:
Officials identified in [a recruiting] 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…
The document was included in a package of opposition research Mr. Smith shared through an encrypted email with Matt Tait, a cybersecurity expert who once worked for British intelligence. Mr. Tait said he was approached last summer by Mr. Smith, who wanted him to help verify whether emails offered to the group by hackers came from Mrs. Clinton’s private server.
After discussing his project by phone and in emails Mr. Smith gave him a document called the “KLS research packet,” which contained articles Mr. Smith planned to use for opposition research, Mr. Tait said. The packet cover sheet is the document that listed the Trump campaign officials. Mr. Smith’s name and phone number are typed at the bottom of it.
Bannon says he never heard of Smith. Conway says she knew him but only because they were both GOP operatives of longstanding and hadn’t spoken to him in years. They’re listed under “Trump Campaign” on Smith’s cover sheet, but even the Journal acknowledges that “There is no indication in the document that [Smith] sought or received any coordination from the campaign officials or the campaign in general.”
Which leaves us … where? After two WSJ scoops, there’s still no hard evidence that anyone in the campaign, including Flynn, actually spoke to Smith. Even if he and Flynn were friendly, there’s no proof that Flynn or anyone else put him up to this hacker outreach. Smith may simply have been a name-dropper, believing that it would catch hackers’ attention and make them more likely to deal with him if they thought Trump was involved. Maybe he hoped to make his outreach operation a joint effort with the campaign once it got off the ground, with Smith listing officials on the documents (Bannon, Conway, etc) whom he assumed would be interested. If so that’s sleazy, evidence that at least one American was willing to collude in a Russian interference operation during a presidential campaign to help his party. But it’s not proof of collusion by the campaign, which is what Democrats are so focused on.
But wait. Late last night, Matt Tait, the British expert named in the Journal piece, published his own account of what happened with Smith at Lawfare. Tait has no hard evidence of collusion between Smith and the campaign either. But he does have some soft evidence:
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.
That suggests that Smith and Flynn were chummy enough for Flynn to blab to him about campaign office politics but it still doesn’t prove that Flynn put him up to the hacker outreach. The (circumstantial) evidence for that, Tait goes on to say, is that Smith proposed to do this “research” on Hillary’s emails via a Delaware LLC in order “to avoid campaign reporting.” Likewise, his reference to the “Trump Campaign” in his cover sheet was qualified with “in coordination to the extent permitted as an independent expenditure.” Supposedly this is proof that the campaign was involved in the hacker outreach and they and Smith were taking measures to disguise that as much as possible.
Again, though: What if the campaign’s involvement was merely aspirational on Smith’s part? Maybe he set out to obtain Clinton’s emails in the expectation, but without confirmation, that the campaign would become involved if he was successful and knew that he’d need to anticipate their desire to keep their fingerprints off it if they did. It could be that he thought surprising his potentially very powerful friend, Mike Flynn, with a cache of dirt on Hillary would ingratiate him to Flynn and by extension Trump. All of that would be seedy and highly dubious if Flynn agreed to receive the emails and to use them. But Smith never succeeded in authenticating anything and there remains no proof that he did this at Flynn’s or Bannon’s or anyone else’s behest.
In fact, imagine a conversation between Flynn and Smith where Smith proposes to try to “find” Hillary’s emails on the Dark Web for the Trump campaign and Flynn tells him, somewhat noncommittally, to keep him posted if he stumbles across anything interesting. Smith goes out, puts this hacker initiative together, and starts sniffing around. Flynn, meanwhile, tells no one else in the campaign what’s going on and maybe even doesn’t think much about it, knowing that it’s a fishing expedition. Nothing ends up coming of it. You can slam Flynn in that scenario for not aggressively discouraging Smith from trying to benefit politically from Russian active measures, but that’s not the jackpot “collusion!” theory that lefties are focused on.
But that’s not to say these Journal stories are nothingburgers. They’re important in one sense: They turn up the heat on Mike Flynn. He knows what was or wasn’t said to Smith about talking to hackers. And he may be the only person in Trump’s campaign inner circle with both the opportunity and the motive, namely, immunity from prosecution, to reveal the campaign’s involvement if in fact there was involvement. The Smith saga makes Flynn potentially an even bigger risk to Team Trump than he already was.