Lazy Saturday Reads: Russia NewsPosted: August 11, 2018
Remember Peter Smith, the guy who was trying to help the Trump campaign get Hillary Clinton’s emails? He ended up supposedly committing suicide in a Minnesota hotel room in July, 2017, shortly after he was interviewed by Shane Harris of The Wall Street Journal. After the story broke, Matt Tait published an article at Lawfare about his involvement in the story. Today Buzzfeed News reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier have a new story on Smith: GOP Operative Made “Suspicious” Cash Withdrawals During Pursuit Of Clinton Emails.
In one of the most intriguing episodes of the 2016 presidential campaign, Republican activist Peter W. Smith launched an independent effort to obtain Hillary Clinton’s emails to help defeat her and elect Donald Trump. His quest, which reportedly brought him into contact with at least two sets of hackers that he himself believed were Russian, remains a key focus of investigations into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin.
Now, BuzzFeed News has reviewed documents showing that FBI agents and congressional investigators have zeroed in on transactions Smith made right as his effort to procure Clinton’s emails heated up. Just a day after he finished a report suggesting he was working with Trump campaign officials, for example, he transferred $9,500 from an account he had set up to fund the email project to his personal account, later taking out more than $4,900 in cash. According to a person with direct knowledge of Smith’s project, the Republican operative stated that he was prepared to pay hackers “many thousands of dollars” for Clinton’s emails — and ultimately did so….
The money trail, made public here for the first time, sheds new light on Smith’s effort, in which he told people he was in touch with both Russians on the dark web and Trump campaign officials — particularly Michael Flynn, who was then a top adviser to the Trump campaign and later served as national security adviser before having to resign after misleading White House officials about his meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Intelligence agencies have given the FBI information that Russian hackers talked about passing Clinton’s emails to Flynn through a cutout, according to two law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the matter. It is not known if that cutout was in any way connected to Smith.
Smith claimed that the Russians had hacked Hillary’s private server and he was determined to get his hands on the emails.
Smith assembled a group of people including experts in technology, lawyers, and even a Russian-speaking investigator to figure out how to obtain Clinton’s emails, according to the Journal. On the Friday before the Labor Day weekend, Smith incorporated a company called KLS Research. In a proposal Smith put together describing the effort to obtain the emails, he named the company as the “preferred vehicle” for the research into Clinton’s email, and Smith would tell Tait that KLS Research would also help “avoid campaign reporting.”
Smith and his longtime business partner, John Szobocsan, were the two signers for a bank account linked to KLS Research….
Soon after Labor Day, Smith appears to have finished an operational plan, which included the names of top Trump campaign officials, some of whom have denied speaking with Smith anytime during the campaign. Smith’s report is dated Sept. 7.
The next day, Smith withdrew $9,500 from the KLS Research account and deposited it into his personal bank account, both held at Northern Trust. From there, Smith took out a little more than $4,900 in cash and sent checks to an accountant and an LLC controlled by a private real estate company. Later in September, Smith made withdrawals of $500 and $700 from KLS Research.
These transactions came to light after Northern Trust received a subpoena from the FBI for Smith’s records last December. The subpoena specifically sought information about the $9,500 withdrawal from KLS Research’s account.
After scouring nine accounts that Smith controlled, Northern Trust turned over documents showing 88 suspicious cash withdrawals totaling about $140,000 between January 2016 and April 2017, including a $3,000 withdrawal six days after the election. Northern Trust found these transactions suspicious because officials could not determine the purpose of the withdrawals and because some of them took place over the time Smith was engaged in his project to obtain Clinton’s emails. Many of the cash transactions, the bank noted, were less than $10,000, small enough not to trigger an automatic alert to the government. After receiving the subpoena, the bank sent a report to Treasury’s financial crimes unit, which shared its findings with the FBI, special counsel Robert Mueller, and Senate Intelligence Committee investigators.
The story reports that “three US law enforcement officials” confirmed that Smith is still “an important figure” in the investigation and that Mueller’s investigators have interviewed people involved with Smith. I wonder if Mike Flynn is helping out with this aspect of the investigation?
Head over to Buzzfeed News to read the rest of the story.
Lawfare has a lengthy post up about the Buzzfeed story: Peter Smith’s Search for Hillary Clinton’s Emails: The Subplot Thickens. Here’s just a taste:
On its own, the Buzzfeed story might not be a groundbreaking development. But the article doesn’t stand alone. It comes in the wake of Mueller’s indictments of Russians involved in the Kremlin’s social media manipulation operation and, more importantly for present purposes, the hacking and leaking of Democratic Party materials during the 2016 campaign. In that context, it is highly significant that Buzzfeed reports that Smith’s efforts are actively being investigated by the special counsel’s team. Not only has Mueller’s team interviewed “people who Smith tried to recruit and others who worked on his operation to obtain Clinton’s emails,” it has also “tried to determine if [former national security adviser Michael] Flynn assisted Smith in his operation”—a question that Smith’s possible payments to hackers are “key” to answering, Buzzfeed writes.
So how do the facts reported in the Peter Smith stories, particularly Buzzfeed’s latest, line up with Mueller’s indictments? Mueller’s allegations describe, in detail, a complex Russian conspiracy to shape the 2016 U.S. elections—a conspiracy that involved an influence operation conducted on social media, the publication of hacked information, and outreach to a person in contact with the Trump campaign, reportedly Roger Stone.
The Peter Smith stories—between the Journal’s reporting, Tait’s Lawfare account and the latest report from Buzzfeed—describe another plot, one that took shape on this side of the Atlantic. Whether this second plot amounts to a conspiracy is a legal question beyond the scope of this post, but it appears to have involved, at a minimum, an agreement among a number of actors to obtain illegally hacked emails, perhaps by buying them. Tait wrote that he specifically warned Smith that the person purporting to have Clinton’s emails was likely part of Russia’s campaign against the United States and that Smith didn’t care about the source, as long as he got the emails. So it’s certainly plausible that the Smith operation also involved a conspiracy of some sort.
Meanwhile, Russian state TV is getting more and more blatant about Putin’s influence on Trump. Raw Story: Russian state TV warns Trump to ‘do what we say’ if you want ‘support in the elections.’
Julia Davis, who runs the Russian Media Monitor website, reports via Twitter that news show “60 Minutes” this week held a panel discussion about actions Russia should take to retaliate against the latest round of American sanctions.
Vitaly Tretyakov, the dean of the Moscow State University’s School of Television, argued that the Russian government should use whatever leverage it had over Trump to bend the president to its will.
“Let’s turn this into a headache for Trump,” he said, according to Davis’ translation. “If you want us to support you in the elections, do what we say.”
At The Washington Post, Anne Applebaum asks if American institutions are really strong enough to stop Trump: Are you still sure there’s no need to worry?
“Don’t worry, the institutions will stop him.” Or: “Don’t worry, he hasn’t done any real damage yet, the institutions have stopped him.” How many times have you heard some version of this analysis since the election of President Trump? Sometimes, the speaker is an optimist, someone with faith in the U.S. Constitution. Sometimes, the speaker is a skeptic, someone who dislikes the alleged “hysteria” of those who think Trump’s corrupt habits, autocratic language and authoritarian behavior are doing lasting damage. Either way, they are reassured, and reassuring: Congress will stop him. The judiciary will stop him. The FBI, the Republican Party, the Constitution will stop him. Don’t worry.
But America’s federal institutions are not the only ones designed to prevent someone like Trump from undermining the Constitution. We have other kinds of institutions, too — legal organs, regulatory bodies, banks — that are supposed to prevent men like Trump from staying in business, let alone acquiring political power. The truth is that many of these equally important American institutions failed a long time ago. Trump is not the cause of their failure. He is the result.
One example: Paul Manafort.
Here is a man who is alleged to have declared income as “loans,” concealed foreign bank accounts and lied about money that Ukrainian oligarchs were paying him via shell companies in Cyprus. For decades, in other words, U.S. law enforcement institutions were unable to spot the money-laundering, tax evasion and fraud that his partner Rick Gates spent several hours describing, even when carried out by a prominent person. As long ago as 1985, Manafort’s name featured in Jacob Weisberg’s still-famous New Republic cover story about Roger Stone, then his consulting partner. The headline: “The State-of-the-Art Washington Sleazeball.”
For decades, Manafort’s “political consultancy” has helped crooks and autocrats retain power. But even leaving aside the question of morality: Why wasn’t Manafort put out of business for suspected fraud years ago? Did the police not have the resources? The motivation? Whatever the reason, here, for the optimists and skeptics, is a clear institutional failure: A society allegedly obsessed with “law and order,” so much so that it has the highest incarceration rates in the world, couldn’t be bothered to investigate a famously sleazy man who was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on antique rugs and men’s suits in Northern Virginia.
And what about Trump’s career?
Nearly 40 years ago, in 1980, Trump employed 200 illegal Polish workers to destroy the Bonwit Teller department store, a historic building on Fifth Avenue, to make way for what would become Trump Tower. The men earned half the union wage and worked 12-hour shifts without hard hats; at one point, their contractor stopped paying them. Eventually they sued. In 1998, Trump paid $1.375 million to settle the case.
Trump broke immigration law and employment law, and he violated union rules, too. Yet neither immigration authorities nor employment regulators nor union bosses put him out of business. Why not? Why were the terms of that settlement kept confidential? Why, with his track record, was he allowed to get a casino license? Building permits? Wall Street banks did, it is true, stop lending to him. But when he began looking abroad for cash — doing extremely dodgy deals in Georgia and Azerbaijan, for example — no one stopped him.
Read the whole thing at the Post.
What else is happening? What stories are you following?