A Republican operative who claimed ties to top Trump campaign officials -- who later became White House officials -- "didn't seem to care" that Russia might have stolen the Hillary Clinton emails he was seeking, according to one tech expert he approached.
Peter Smith described to the Wall Street Journal how he tried to obtain those emails in a report published Thursday, and the newspaper published a follow-up late Friday on a document showing the GOP operative boasted of links to Trump campaign officials Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis and Mike Flynn.
The 81-year-old Smith died in mid-May, about 10 days after speaking to the Journal's reporter at his own request.
Matt Tait, CEO and founder of the UK-based Capital Alpha Security, served as an unnamed source in the initial story and was extensively quoted by name in the follow-up, gave a detailed account on the Lawfare blog about how Smith recruited him in efforts to uncover 33,000 emails missing from Clinton's private server.
Tait began studying Clinton's publicly released State Department emails last spring and posted findings related to computer security on his Twitter account, because he thought they might offer insight into cybersecurity and national security issues if elected president.
He turned his attention to emails stolen from DNC servers in June, after the "Guccifer 2.0" persona dumped them online.
"A few weeks later, right around the time the DNC emails were dumped by Wikileaks --
and curiously, around the same time Trump called for the Russians to get Hillary Clinton’s missing emails -- I was contacted out the blue by a man named Peter Smith, who had seen my work going through these emails," Tait wrote. "Smith implied that he was a well-connected Republican political operative."
Smith claimed someone from the "Dark Web" had contacted him and offered emails purportedly stolen from Clinton's private server, and he wanted Tait to authenticate the documents.
Tait, who is not a U.S. citizen, said he didn't feel comfortable offering assistance to either campaign, but he continued speaking to Smith because he wanted to learn more about the identity of that "Dark Web" source -- who he suspected might have ties to Russian intelligence.
He never fond out the source's identity, but Tait was troubled that Smith brushed off his concerns that the emails might have been stolen by Russian operatives as part of an influence campaign against the United States.
"Smith, however, didn’t seem to care," Tait said. "From his perspective it didn’t matter who had taken the emails, or their motives for doing so. He never expressed to me any discomfort with the possibility that the emails he was seeking were potentially from a Russian front, a likelihood he was happy to acknowledge. If they were genuine, they would hurt Clinton’s chances, and therefore help Trump."
Bannon and Conway, who ran the final stages of Trump's campaign and now serve as top advisers to the president, denied working with Smith or his data outfit KLS Research, which he formed as a limited-liability company in September to avoid campaign reporting.
Tait said materials Smith sent to him about KLS Research listed those names of senior campaign officials -- as well as his own, identified as an independent researcher -- sometime in late summer, and he shared those documents with the Journal.
"My perception then was that the inclusion of Trump campaign officials on this document was not merely a name-dropping exercise," Tait said. "This document was about establishing a company to conduct opposition research on behalf of the campaign, but operating at a distance so as to avoid campaign reporting. Indeed, the document says as much in black and white."
The White House and the Agriculture Department, where Clovis now works, declined comment, as did Flynn, who resigned as national security adviser in February over his undisclosed communications with the Russian ambassador.
"Although it wasn’t initially clear to me how independent Smith’s operation was from Flynn or the Trump campaign, it was immediately apparent that Smith was both well connected within the top echelons of the campaign and he seemed to know both Lt. Gen. Flynn and his son well," Tait said.
Smith routinely talked about "the bizarre world at the top of the Trump campaign," and seemed to know about personality conflicts between Flynn and James Clapper, then-director of national intelligence.
He said Flynn was angling to become CIA director under Trump, but had been persuaded that he might face difficulty passing the Senate confirmation process -- which he did not undergo to become national security adviser.
Smith also said Trump's team expressed concerns that the candidate seemed to repeat the views of the last person who had spoken to him, which sowed distrust among campaign officials jockeying for influence.
Tait said he warned Smith over several phone conversations about the risks involved in releasing emails that might have been stolen by Russian intelligence -- which Tait never actually saw -- but he said the GOP operative was unconcerned.
"It is no overstatement to say that my conversations with Smith shocked me," Tait said. "Given the amount of media attention given at the time to the likely involvement of the Russian government in the DNC hack, it seemed mind-boggling for the Trump campaign — or for this offshoot of it — to be actively seeking those emails. To me this felt really wrong."
Tait stopped speaking with Smith in mid-September, after he was asked -- and refused -- to sign a non-disclosure agreement.