During a press conference in Florida on July 17, 2016, Donald Trump asked for some help finding emails that Hillary Clinton had supposedly deleted from her private email account. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” That same day, Russian hackers made their first attempt to break into Clinton’s servers.
Last month, Trump referred to those remarks as “sarcastic” and “a joke” during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, released on Thursday, puts this characterization into question.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn told investigators that Trump repeatedly asked people affiliated with his presidential campaign to find the emails. Flynn claims that he undertook an effort to retrieve the emails at Trump’s request. He contacted Barbara Ledeen, a Senate staffer, and Peter Smith, an investment adviser involved in Republican politics.
Ledeen had actually been searching for the emails herself since 2015. She sent Smith a 15-page proposal at the end of that year:
The proposal called for a three-phase approach. The first two phases consisted of open-source analysis. The third phase consisted of checking with certain intelligence sources “that have access through liaison work with various foreign services” to determine if any of those services had gotten to the server. The proposal noted, “Even if a single email was recovered and the providence [sic] of that email was a foreign service, it would be catastrophic to the Clinton campaign[.]”
Smith forwarded the proposal to his colleagues but declined to collaborate with Ledeen because he didn’t think the effort was viable. However, weeks after Trump made the request in 2016 to track down the emails, Smith decided to launch his own search effort:
[Smith] created a company, raised tens of thousands of dollars, and recruited security experts and business associates. Smith made claims to others involved in the effort (and those from whom he sought funding) that he was in contact with hackers with “ties and affiliations to Russia” who had access to the emails, and that his efforts were coordinated with the Trump Campaign.
In August, Smith sent an update to several people, including Trump campaign co-chair Sam Clovis, claiming that he had been in “sensitive meetings” in D.C. with groups who were looking into Clinton’s server. He noted that hackers had been able to gain access and were planning to release the material ahead of the election.
The next month, Smith had a business associate establish KLS Research LLC, partly to manage the money he’d raised to find the emails. Investigators determined that KLS received more than $30,000 during the campaign. In an effort to recruit security experts for KLS, Smith claimed that he was coordinating with campaign officials such as Flynn, Clovis, Steve Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway. However, the investigation only found proof of contact with Flynn and Clovis.
At around the same time, Smith and Ledeen got back in contact to discuss their search efforts. Leeden claimed to have found a trove of Clinton’s emails on the deep web. Blackwater founder Erik Prince, brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, provided money to hire a tech expert to analyze the trove. The expert determined that the emails were inauthentic.
Despite Smith’s subsequent claims to have had insight into WikiLeaks and contact with the Russian hackers, investigators could not establish that this was the case:
Associates and security experts who worked with Smith on the initiative did not believe that Smith was in contact with Russian hackers and were aware of no such connection. The investigation did not establish that Smith was in contact with Russian hackers or that Smith, Ledeen, or other individuals in touch with the Trump Campaign ultimately obtained the deleted Clinton emails.
The report notes, though, that Smith appears to have obtained material from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s inbox before WikiLeaks released it:
A backup of Smith’s computer contained two files that had been downloaded from WikiLeaks and that were originally attached to emails received by John Podesta. The files on Smith’s computer had creation dates of October 2, 2016, which was prior to the date of their release by WikiLeaks. Forensic examination, however, established that the creation date did not reflect when the files were downloaded to Smith ‘s computer. … The investigation did not otherwise identify evidence that Smith obtained the files before their release by WikiLeaks.
Smith was found dead in 2017. His death was ruled a suicide.