New details have emerged about a Republican opposition researcher’s failed attempt to get Hillary Clinton deleted emails from Russian computer hackers who claimed to have the documents.
Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal broke the story that a longtime political operative named Peter Smith formed a team of researchers, investigators, computer experts and attorneys to obtain 33,000 emails that Clinton deleted from the email server she used as secretary of state.
Smith hoped to show that Clinton’s server had been hacked, an allegation she repeatedly denied during the campaign.
The Journal report was particularly intriguing because Smith, who died in May at the age of 81, suggested to associates that retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn may have been involved in the Clinton email hunt.
As the newspaper reported, the details of Smith’s operation matched one discussed in intelligence agency reports “that describe Russian hackers discussing how to obtain emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server and then transmit them to Mr. Flynn via an intermediary.”
The scope of Smith’s project came into sharper focus on Tuesday, when Politico reported that Chuck Johnson, a pro-Trump entrepreneur and opposition researcher, worked with Smith on the search for Clinton’s hacked emails.
The website identified Johnson and several other “alt right” figures as being involved in the project.
The Daily Caller reached Johnson to discuss his work with Smith, who first revealed his undertaking with The Journal in an interview 10 days before his death. Johnson openly acknowledged working with Smith, who he met in 2013.
“I’m very proud of the help I gave to Peter Smith, and I’m proud to have known him. I have nothing to apologize for. It’s not nefarious at all. If this were on the other side the Democrats would have done it. We just did it better and we won the election,” Johnson told TheDC.
Johnson, who has reported for The Daily Caller, Breitbart and other outlets, said that the project was independent of the Trump campaign.
“The whole time I used my own money,” Johnson says, putting his expenses at “tens of thousands of dollars, at least.”
He also claims that Flynn was not directly involved in the effort, though he did note that Smith had “a lot of points of contact” who were close to Flynn.
Johnson said that the project with Smith sprung from a sense that “Trump was not going to win unless we do something.”
Smith dangled high-profile Trump campaign players as part of his recruiting pitch for the Clinton email work.
In emails described by the Journal and Politico, Smith claimed that Trump advisers Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon and Sam Clovis were involved in the project. In some emails, Smith gave the impression that Flynn, members of his consulting firm Flynn Intel Group, and his son were involved in the work.
Bannon and Conway have denied knowing anything about Smith’s operation.
Smith, who owned a private equity firm in Chicago, hired several computer experts to help scour the dark web for any of Clinton’s stolen emails. The team found five separate hacker outfits based overseas claimed to have possession of the records.
Smith told The Journal before his death that two of the hacker collectives were Russian and were thought to be connection to the Kremlin.
“We knew the people who had these were probably around the Russian government,” Smith told the newspaper.
Johnson says part of his role was identifying and vetting the groups claiming to have Clinton’s documents.
But the team determined that the emails were not actually from Clinton’s server.
“They didn’t have the juice,” says Johnson of the hacker groups.
A British cybersecurity expert named Matt Tait was invited to join Smith’s operation. But he told The Journal that he declined to take part.
Smith also involved Jonathan Safron, a law student who worked for Smith at his firm, Corporate Venture Alliances.
Pax Dickinson, a former business associate of Johnson’s, also worked on the email venture.
Johnson spoke in glowing terms about Smith, saying that he missed the low-key operative, who helped finance investigations into Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
“It was the last hurrah of an aging oppo man,” Johnson said of the email operation.
“He wanted to get the emails and be like a Julian Assange figure,” he added, referring to the founder of WikiLeaks.