Five of Donald Trump’s key advisers are linked to an attempt to buy Hillary Clinton’s missing State Department e-mails from a hacking broker on the dark web.
For more than 40 years, Peter W. Smith was a fixture among Chicago’s elite. He was at once a high-flying private equity banker and a trusted Republican operative. “When Peter W. Smith talks, Newt Gingrich listens,” a 1995 article from Crain’s said about him. As Gingrich climbed the ranks of the Republican Party in the 90’s, Smith became his “No. 1 financial backer … and one of the top 20 contributors nationwide.”
Peter Smith’s connected life in business and Republican circles ended on May 14 when he died. Smith was 81 but the circumstances surrounding his death are shrouded in mystery. An obituary posted in the Chicago Tribune, lauded Smith’s work as a tycoon and Republican operative but it did not list a cause of death.
“I should say we do not know how he died,” says the Wall Street Journal’s Shane Harris. “We made multiple attempts, both with family members and with associates of his, as well as government officials in the town where he lived, to try to determine his cause of death, and we were unsuccessful,” Harris told MSNBC.
The Wall Street Journal reporter had good reason to be inquiring about Peter W. Smith’s death. Just ten days before the 81-year-old private equity banker’s demise, he called up Shane at the Wall Street Journal and confirmed a story the reporter had been chasing. Smith revealed he had mounted an “independent” campaign to find the 30,000 missing e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s private server she used while Secretary of State. Smith was convinced the e-mails were out there, theorizing Russian hackers could have them.
Smith’s efforts to find the missing Clinton e-mails date back to last Summer, just a few weeks after the Washington Post revealed the hack of the Democratic Party servers was the act of a Kremlin-linked hacker. The operation launch also coincided with Donald Trump’s public request for Russian help in finding the documents. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing,” Trump said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Peter W. Smith began assembling a team to work on the e-mail project.
As Matt Tait, a UK-based cyber security expert and former British spy, tells it, Smith contacted him “out of the blue”. He introduced himself as a Republican Party operative. “He mentioned that he had been contacted by someone on the “dark web” who claimed to have a copy of e-mails from Secretary Clinton’s private server, he wanted me to help validate whether or not the emails were genuine,” says Tait.
The U.K. based cyber security expert agreed to help verify the e-mails, theorizing the dark web contact was either a Russian cut-out (espionage speak for an arm’s-length agent of a nation-state), or a fraudster trying to “dupe Smith out of his money.” Smith denied he intended to pay for the e-mails in his interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Tait stayed in contact with Smith in the following months but never did see the e-mails. He notes Smith regularly boasted of his links to the Trump campaign, particularly Lt-Gen Michael Flynn. Flynn briefly served as Trump’s National Security Adviser before a Justice department investigation found him to be compromised by the Kremlin. Before his death, Smith denied Flynn was involved in the operation but several e-mails obtained by the Wall Street Journal, suggest Smith was acting as a conduit for Flynn.
According to Tait, and others involved in the operation, Smith sent out a document on Labor Day last year, listing four groups involved in the e-mail scheme. Among them was a group labeled “Trump Campaign” which included a who’s who of Trump’s inner circle: Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis, Lt. Gen. Flynn and Lisa Nelson.
The Trump administration says it wasn’t involved with Smith’s scheme but isn’t denying the operation existed. “If Mr. Flynn coordinated with him in any way, it would have been in his capacity as a private individual,” a spokesman told the Wall Street Journal. Flynn is widely believed to be co-operating with the FBI investigation so pinning the entire thing on him comes at little cost to the administration. But what about the other four Trump advisers listed in Smith’s document? How deep was their involvement? That may be a secret Smith has taken to his grave.