The saga of Peter Smith’s quest to obtain 33,000 emails deleted by Hillary Clinton—an effort now at the center of intrigue swirling around the Donald Trump campaign’s ties to Russia— keeps getting weirder.
In his Hail Mary bid to tip the election to Trump, the Republican private equity executive enlisted two controversial alt-right activists to help him understand the workings of the internet and make contacts in Trump’s orbit, according to interviews with those involved and emails obtained by POLITICO.
The activists, the journalist-turned-entrepreneur Charles Johnson and his former business partner Pax Dickinson, agreed to help Smith’s quixotic mission, which failed to track down copies of Clinton’s emails. Johnson is a polarizing figure who was banned from Twitter in 2015 after promoting an effort to “take out” a Black Lives Matter activist but maintains ties to White House officials. Smith also reached out to “Guccifer 2.0”—an alias the U.S. intelligence community has linked to Russian state hackers—and was advised to seek the help of a white nationalist hacker who lives in Ukraine.
Smith’s doomed effort, which brought him into contact with hackers he believed were tied to the Kremlin and was first reported last month by the Wall Street Journal, has emerged as a topic of intense interest as investigators probe ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Understanding Smith’s relationships could hold the key to the question of whether or not Trump’s campaign colluded with the Kremlin: Federal investigators are probing an apparent attempt by Russian government hackers to obtain the deleted emails and provide them to former national security adviser Michael Flynn through a third party, the Journal also reported. The paper was unable to identify the Russians’ intended intermediary, but suggested it may have been Smith, who had boasted of his ties to Flynn.
The new details of Smith’s operation, which were shared with POLITICO Magazine by Johnson and others, paint a picture of a determined but ill-equipped activist casting about far and wide in a frantic but ultimately futile quest to get ahold of Clinton’s deleted emails and publish them ahead of Election Day. As the ailing octogenarian was dealing with sophisticated hackers and navigating the darkest corners of the internet, for instance, he was being tutored in the use of basic computer technology.
They also illustrate the daunting task before investigators should they seek to examine the wide-ranging cast of colorful contacts Smith enlisted in his effort and the sometimes blurry lines between Trump’s lean, unorthodox campaign and the outside activists working to help it.
In a recruiting document used for the effort, the 81-year-old Smith – who died in May – listed the names of several senior Trump aides, including Flynn, former Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and campaign chairman Sam Clovis, the Journal reported.
Jonathan Safron, a former assistant to Smith in Chicago, said that Smith also spoke to him of knowing Clovis, who was a well-known conservative activist in nearby Iowa before becoming co-chairman of Trump’s campaign, and that he had seen Smith email Clovis about matters unrelated to Clinton’s emails. Safron said he does not know if Clovis, who did not respond to requests for comment, ever replied.
Smith, a former chairman of the College Republicans, had been pursuing freelance political adventures for years. In the 1990s, he was a chief promotor of stories damaging to Bill Clinton, working in the same small circle as Conway’s husband, George, to air allegations of sexual misconduct against the then-president, according to a 1999 Newsweek article.
Johnson, a former Breitbart reporter, said he first encountered the Chicagoan around 2013 when the two collaborated on opposition research about Barack Obama.
In the fall of 2015, Smith promoted Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam’s ambitions to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the House, and Johnson helped to sideline one of Roskam’s potential rivals for the position, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Ironically, some of Smith’s emails related to the speaker’s race were released in a dump by D.C. Leaks, an outlet that, according to cybersecurity experts, was established to publish emails stolen by Russian hackers. In one leaked email from October 8, 2015, Smith wrote to Illinois’ Republican National Committeeman Rich Porter that he had just discussed the speaker’s race with Breitbart reporter Matt Boyle, now the outlet’s Washington bureau chief.
In another leaked email, Smith forwarded a link to a story from GotNews, a website founded by Johnson, accusing McCarthy of carrying on an affair with North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers. The leak also includes an email in which Johnson provided Smith with Boyle’s contact information. Boyle and others at Breitbart aggressively covered the alleged affair, and McCarthy withdrew from the speaker’s race. (Boyle referred questions to Breitbart spokesman Chad Wilkinson, who declined to comment. Porter—who worked with Smith and George Conway to promote Clinton sex scandals back in the ’90s—did not respond to requests for comment.)
Johnson said he and Smith stayed in touch, discussing “tactics and research” regularly throughout the presidential campaign, and that Smith sought his help tracking down Clinton’s emails. “He wanted me to introduce to him to Bannon, to a few others, and I sort of demurred on some of that,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think his operation was as sophisticated as it needed to be and I thought it was good to keep the campaign as insulated as possible.”
Instead, Johnson said, he put the word out to a “hidden oppo network” of right-leaning opposition researchers to notify them of the effort. Johnson declined to provide the names of any of the members of this “network,” but he praised Smith’s ambition.
“The magnitude of what he was trying to do was kind of impressive,” Johnson said. “He had people running around Europe, had people talking to Guccifer.” (U.S. intelligence agencies have linked the materials provided by “Guccifer 2.0”—an alias that has taken credit for hacking the Democratic National Committee and communicated with Republican operatives, including Trump confidant Roger Stone—to Russian government hackers.)
Johnson said he also suggested that Smith get in touch with Andrew Auernheimer, a hacker who goes by the alias “Weev” and has collaborated with Johnson in the past. Auernheimer — who was released from federal prison in 2014 after having a conviction for fraud and hacking offenses vacated and subsequently moved to Ukraine — declined to say whether Smith contacted him, citing conditions of his employment that bar him from speaking to the press.
At the same time Johnson was working with Smith, he was promoting other initiatives aimed at electing Trump. In October, Johnson’s crowdfunding website, WeSearchr, raised $10,000 to send Kathy Shelton—an Arkansas woman who was raped in 1975 by a man who was represented at trial by a young Hillary Clinton—to the second presidential debate in St. Louis. In the hours before the debate, Trump hosted a press conference with Shelton and women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault, and at the debate Trump’s campaign attempted to seat the women in the section reserved for the candidate’s family.
Safron, who worked as an assistant to Smith at the time, said that Johnson — who met with Smith in Chicago before Smith died — had been seeking investment capital from Smith for WeSearchr. Johnson said he discussed an investment with Smith but that he “didn’t need or want his capital.”
Smith also reached out to Matt Tait, a cybersecurity expert and former UK intelligence official, who served as a source for the Journal’s reporting. Tait recounted his conversations with the Republican activist in a recent blog post for the legal affairs website Lawfare, writing that Smith wanted help vetting a “dark web” contact who claimed to be in possession of Clinton’s missing emails. According to Tait, Smith seemed unconcerned about the possibility that by helping publish such emails, he could be aiding a Russian intelligence operation. Tait declined to comment for this article, saying he has recently been contacted “by a number of congressional and other investigators.”
Though Tait declined to work with Smith, the Chicagoan was undeterred, and maintained his interest in seeing the emails published.
In email chain from October obtained by POLITICO, Smith sought the advice of a tech-savvy business associate about concerns that WikiLeaks had been attacked by hackers. In the email, the associate, Royal O’Brien, a Jacksonville-based programmer Smith described as a dark web expert, advised Smith about the use of PGP keys for encryption and opined that anyone who launched an attack on WikiLeaks would likely face stiff blowback from the group’s web-savvy supporters.
According to the Journal, Smith had been advising hacking groups claiming to have Clinton’s emails to turn them over to WikiLeaks. The next month, Smith asserted on his personal blog that “WikiLeaks has reported that they received the Clinton emails nine months ago, but have not released them. These emails were widely available.” It is not clear what led Smith to assert that WikiLeaks possessed the missing emails.
“WikiLeaks does not keep newsworthy information from the public,” said a representative of the group in response to a question about Smith’s assertion. “Publication timing is influenced by workload, research, presentation and verification requirements as well as intensity of public interest.” The group declined to say whether it had contact with Smith, citing a policy of not disclosing its sources.
O’Brien confirmed that Smith sought his advice on technical matters from time to time, including on the feasibility of obtaining Clinton’s deleted emails. “I told him that if they have access to the original hardware anything is accessible,” O’Brien recounted. “That’s basic forensics.”
Also copied on the October email chain is Dickinson, an alt-right activist who was Johnson’s partner at WeSearchr until the pair had a falling out this May. Dickinson said he participated in Smith’s efforts to obtain Clinton’s emails but declined to discuss the matter further, citing a distaste for reporters and “fake news.” Instead, Dickinson, who lost his job as the chief technology officer at Business Insider in 2013 over offensive social media posts and recently launched an alt-right crowd-funding platform called Counter.Fund that is governed by a “High Council” and a “House of Lords,” said he intended to share his story with the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
At the same time Smith was learning to navigate the deepest reaches of the web, he was also struggling to overcome failing health and to master more rudimentary technology.
Safron, who graduated from college in 2013 and has also done work for the Illinois Republican Party, said he had been hired by Smith through a tutoring service in 2015 for help using computers. Safron who graduated from college in 2013, said he taught Smith, who had trouble typing, to use dictation software, and that he helped the aging executive make connections on the professional networking website LinkedIn. Safron said that he was not actively involved in Smith’s election-related efforts, though he was copied on emails related to those efforts.
Johnson, O’Brien and Safron all said they have not heard from government investigators about the matter.
Safron said that he noticed that Journal reporter Shane Harris had viewed his LinkedIn profile this spring and that he notified Smith, who granted Harris an interview in May, 10 days before he died at age 81. Neither his family nor local officials have revealed the cause of Smith’s death, but Safron said he had noticed his boss’s health waning in his final months.
Safron’s social media profiles still link to an old Twitter handle, @JSaf17. Safron said he deleted the account several years ago. But in March, the handle was reused to create a new account, which has tweeted only once—in Russian.