Because the Wall Street Journal is behind a paywall, and because they’re the Wall Street Journal, I won’t break down the entirety of this enormously compelling story that is the first mainstream report of possible collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russians—titled “GOP Operative Sought Clinton Emails From Hackers, Implied a Connection to Flynn.”
But because it is such a significant piece of reporting—doubly so because it is from an outlet that has so far escaped Donald Trump’s “fake news” smear—it’s important to understand what it, well, reports. There are three questions to answer in every Trump-Russia story, so let’s get to it.
Who Did the Things?
There are six players in this game and four have real names (two go on the record).
This guy seems to pop up in these Russia stories a lot huh? Well, it may have something to do with the fact that he was fired over supposedly lying to Vice President Mike Pence about being an unregistered foreign agent (an assertion that former FBI Director James Comey poked a giant hole through).
Other than his link to Trump, here is why Flynn is important to this tale:
In conversations with members of his circle and with others he tried to recruit to help him, the GOP operative, Peter W. Smith, implied he was working with retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, at the time a senior adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump.
That’s really as close of a connection as Flynn gets in this article. The WSJ leads off the fifth paragraph with “What role, if any, Mr. Flynn may have played in Mr. Smith’s project is unclear.” Philip Bump of The Failing Washington Post makes a good point.
If Michael Flynn existed in a vacuum, this story would be much flimsier, since he's the only player connecting it to the president. However, Flynn is not a bubble boy, and has in fact, bumbled his way out of the White House by lying about his contacts with Russia, then fell into the hands of former FBI Director Robert Mueller's special investigative unit.
Knowing the entirety of his verbiage four-plus months into his presidency, this line from Trump the day after he fired Flynn is interesting.
”Gen. Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he has been treated very, very unfairly by the media, as I call it, the fake media in many cases. And I think it is really a sad thing that he was treated so badly.”
According to James Comey's testimony under oath, Trump was fine with his “satellites” getting busted by the Russia investigation, but not Flynn. So, either at the ripe old age of 186 (adjusted for midnight cheeseburger consumption), Trump finally discovered the concept of loyalty, or in his somehow alcohol-riddled, yet alcohol-free mind, Flynn = Russia.
If I were a bookie, here's how I'd set the odds as to who Trump is saying “was treated so badly.”
ie: (+150) = bet $100 to win $150, and (-150) = bet $150 to win $100
Donald Trump: (-400)
Michael Flynn: (+750)
Bill O'Reilly: (+2500)
Peter W. Smith
Think of Smith in Roger Stone terms. The WSJ describes him as a “longtime Republican opposition researcher,” and that in the “early 1990s, Mr. Smith helped publicize Arkansas state troopers' claims that then-Gov. Bill Clinton had enlisted them to arrange trysts with women, an unproven allegation denied by the Clinton White House.”
Sounds like a swell fellow. So why is he important? Because he's the primary source of the story. Smith cobbled together a group of tech experts, lawyers, and a Russian-speaking investigator based in Europe in an attempt to acquire already hacked Hillary Clinton e-mails (which have never been proven to exist), and he told the WSJ that they found five hacker collectives who claimed they had them—including at least two Russian groups. He also implicated Michael Flynn Jr. as a member of his operation, and he dropped a soundbite that will surely reverberate through all of cable news and into the private residence of the White House and eventually, Twitter.
“We knew the people who had these were probably around the Russian government.”
Shane Harris, the reporter behind this piece, also cites Smith's e-mails, writing that “Emails written by Mr. Smith and one of his associates show that his small group considered Mr. Flynn and his consulting company, Flynn Intel Group, to be allies in their quest.”
Basically, Smith and his associate were pitching to people who may have dirt on their opposition, saying that they could deliver it to Michael Flynn. We don't know if they did, but they positioned themselves like they did. Again, this on its own would not be compelling if not without help from a really really really really really stupid outside force. But we'll get to that later.
The WSJ identifies him as a “computer-security expert from Atlanta who searched hacker forums on Mr. Smith's behalf for people who might have access to the emails.” Here we have one of Smith's tech experts confirming that he indeed was searching for Hillary Clinton's hacked e-mails. A source putting their name on the record, you happy now Mr. President?
U.S. Officials with Knowledge of the Intelligence
This is where the “aha!” moment takes place in the piece. Sure, Republicans wanted to help the Republican presidential candidate win, and things got messy. But Trump finding a channel to receive hacked e-mails from Russian intelligence? That's crazy, right?
Per the WSJ:
The operation Mr. Smith described is consistent with information that has been examined by U.S. investigators probing Russian interference in the elections.
Those investigators have examined 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, according to U.S. officials with knowledge of the intelligence.
Note the plural in “intelligence agencies” that confirmed the Russians were searching for an intermediary to deliver e-mails to Flynn at the exact same time that a Republican intermediary connecting himself to Flynn was searching for the e-mails. There isn't anything that directly connects Smith to the Russians, but the circumstantial evidence and the scope of this case within the intelligence community sure is compelling.
Smith described him as a “close colleague,” and Safron declined comment to the Journal after they discovered a recruiting e-mail from him that put Flynn Intel at the top of the list of people working with their team.
A Computer Expert Mr. Smith was in Direct Contact With
This unnamed person divulged the content of their conversations with Peter Smith, saying they were told Smith was in “direct contact” with Flynn and his son. Per the WSJ:
The expert said that based on his conversations with Mr. Smith, he understood the elder Mr. Flynn to be coordinating with Mr. Smith's group in his capacity as a Trump campaign adviser.
A longtime political operator tried to obtain Hillary Clinton's e-mails and communicated with at least two hacker groups near the Russian government, and according to him, he was in direct contact with Donald Trump's National Security Adviser, and much to all of this was corroborated by U.S. intelligence intercepts of Russian communications. Trump's National Security Adviser was forced to resign supposedly because he lied to the administration about a conversation he had with the Russian ambassador as new sanctions were being levied on the Russian government—a conversation that was caught in a similar manner, with U.S. intelligence discovering a connection to Trump via surveillance of the Russians. That Russian ambassador who Trump's National Security Adviser was fired over is Sergei Kislyak—a man who literally no fucking person in this administration remembers conversations with. Anything connected to Flynn stinks, and this reeks.
Unfortunately, we will not be able to hear much more from Smith's side of the story, as he died ten days after the Journal contacted him for this report. Before you travel too far down the Russia conspiracy rabbit hole, he was 81. But I can tell that some of you already jumped before I even spoke.
Is there a Smoking Gun?
No. And we should stop looking for one. Donald Trump could tweet out the pee tape, saying “I did this. This is real.” and Fox News would denounce it as a Hillary Clinton-led coup and convince half the GOP within the hour. As always, many of the most compelling pieces of evidence are provided by the fuckwit at the center of this whole ordeal.
Per the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Smith’s focus was some 33,000 emails Mrs. Clinton said were deleted because they were deemed personal.
Trump asked Russia to find Hillary’s e-mails on July 27th—two days after the FBI announced that they were launching an investigation into the DNC hack. Five weeks later, Peter Smith and his team tried to retrieve those e-mails, asserting that they were working with Trump’s former National Security adviser. If Trump was willing to go on TV and ask the Russians to recover Hillary’s (allegedly) hacked e-mails, is it really so crazy to think that he would reach out to the Kremlin and try to get them?
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.