The Trouble With Peter Smith

The Trouble With Peter Smith
AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File
The Trouble With Peter Smith
AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File
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One of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films is a black comedy called “The Trouble With Harry.” It seems that Harry’s body has suddenly shown up and everyone is trying to figure out what to do with it, and what it all means, in bursts of hilarious confusion and misdirection.

Something similar seems to be playing out at the Wall Street Journal. Sunday’s edition carried yet another story on the publication’s 18-month-long sleuthing into the supposedly mysterious activities of financier Peter W. Smith, who committed suicide in May of 2017: “GOP Operative Secretly Raised at Least $100,000 in Search for Clinton Emails.”

It is filled with innuendo about things that looked “especially significant” to the WSJ team “because Mr. Smith had implied in conversation with people in his circle and others he tried to recruit to help that he was working with retired Lt. Gen Mike Flynn, at the time a senior adviser to then-candidate Donald Trump.”

Like Barack Obama, Loretta Lynch, and Hillary Clinton, Smith turns out to have had a special email account for sneaking around. Horrors! And he apparently referred to something called a “scholarship fund for Russian students,” which may or may not have existed, may or may not have anything to do with Russians, and the WSJ doesn’t know if it ever got any funds. Horrors, Russians!

I knew Peter Smith for 14 years and watched him devolve from a canny financier and a player in the Chicago GOP to a bankrupt octogenarian, cadging money from his friends and trying to raise funds on a loopy mission to somehow get his hands on the 33,000 deleted Hillary Clinton emails he was sure would guarantee Trump’s election. The man who helped finance David Brock’s Troopergate 25 years earlier wanted his last hurrah.

As the 2016 campaign wore on, Smith would bore me in phone calls about how close he was getting to his goal, dropping the big names he was calling for help, such as his business associate Michael Flynn, and how he would have problems authenticating the emails even if he did get any of them. Since Smith had zero computer expertise and showed no ability to find anyone who did, I constantly discouraged him, dismissing as nonsense his notion that “somewhere on the Deep Web” the emails were sitting, ready for the plucking. He was more likely to get plucked himself by the con men out there just dying to take his money and lead him on. And he was running out of time before the election.

Another Journal article on this topic, published Thursday, is headlined “Late GOP Activist Peter W. Smith Met With Former Trump Adviser Flynn in 2015.” Flynn has been criticized for the poor judgment some say he exhibited in deals he entered into setting up his consulting business after retiring from the military. Smith was a financier always looking at new deals. He also was an admirer of Flynn’s, as he told me many times. Did Flynn enter into a deal with Smith specifically regarding the latter’s attempt to get the Clinton emails? I’d count on Smith trying to finagle it. But I have no idea, and neither apparently does the WSJ in its latest piece.

Shortly before Smith committed suicide on May 14, 2017, apparently to meet a deadline on an expiring insurance policy to cover his family, he had been talking about his email search with Shane Harris, then a newly hired national security reporter for the Journal. This is particularly curious since a subhead on Sunday’s story says that “Smith … went to extraordinary lengths to keep his projects a secret.” Smith talked to a Journal reporter all about them and recommended to at least two others of us that we do so as well? Some secret.

Harris, who is now at The Washington Post, wrote a story on all this in late June 2017, summing up what he learned and what he suspected the possibilities might be.

A few weeks later the Journal published his follow-up: “GOP Activist Who Sought Clinton Emails Cited Trump Campaign Officials.” Harris’ piece opened with the assertion that in a recruitment document to finance his quixotic email quest, Peter Smith “listed senior members of the Trump campaign, including some who now serve as top aides in the White House.” Harris mentions by name Flynn, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and Sam Clovis, a political appointee at the Department of Agriculture.

But in the article itself, we learn those headlined “Campaign Officials” denied knowing a thing about Smith or his recruiting document. (Flynn -- up to his neck in legal matters at the time -- didn’t answer.) Were they all lying?

There were other people listed in that document whom Harris didn’t mention. Harris told Charles K. Ortel, a retired investment banker, he was on the list. It was clear to Ortel that Smith’s “recruiting document” was an information memorandum intended to enhance Smith’s quest to finance his quixotic search for the Clinton emails. And it looked like Smith had just put together a list of names, none of whom had the least idea they were on it or even that it existed. I was on the list as well.

So I was curious. How about the other people listed? Did they know? I called several of them whose names I was given by Ortel. Shane Harris, they said, hadn’t contacted them. Tom Fitton, the head of Judicial Watch, had no idea he was named in the document, or even that it existed, and had not been called by Harris. Nor had James O’Keefe, the head of Project Veritas.

Contacted this week for an explanation, Harris replied, “I’m afraid I am going to have to ask you to call the Journal. I can’t talk about the reporting I did at the Journal.”

It now appears that those names were nothing but phony eyewash Smith was hoping would help float his financing. At Abe Rosenthal’s New York Times, a reporter who hadn’t made an effort to check every name on a list he was cherry-picking for an article that was otherwise an empty bag wouldn’t have lasted another day. Shane Harris was only at the Journal for seven months before moving to the Post.

So I asked a member of the reporting team for the WSJ’s Sunday story two questions regarding the headline atop their latest Smith effort:

  1. Is there any evidence from anyone in the GOP or Trump campaign, or any printed information, that established Peter Smith as an active and known “GOP Operative” during the 2016 presidential campaign? 
  2. BuzzFeed reported that Smith’s funding entity, KLS, raised $50,000 for his Clinton email quest. Is there any evidence that he raised another $50,000 for the total the Journal reported as $100,000? (It seems to me Smith put in his own money, but donating one’s own money is not “raising it,” is it?)

The reporter’s “response” to the questions: “As you know, we are very careful about protecting both our sources and our sources of information, so I am looping in our communications director Steve who can assist you.”

Nothing in my questions required revealing sources or sources of information. I asked for evidence behind the headline. They hide behind “corporate communications”? If they don’t want to back it up, what is this article doing in the Journal?

But the trouble with Peter Smith is that the tale doesn’t so much resemble the Hitchcock movie plot as it does the British intelligence operation in World War II called Operation Mincemeat. A dead body, dressed as a Royal Navy officer and carrying enthralling clues, was drifted onto the Spanish shore to perplex and deceive the Nazis and fill them with endless speculation and confusion. With so little new information in the three WSJ reports, one has to wonder: Who keeps floating Peter Smith’s corpse towards shore and why? Now that might be a real story.

After all, no one has presented any evidence Smith ever got a single Clinton email, not even a recipe or wedding invitation. All Smith appears to have been trying to do is what any decent news organization should have done: get hold of the 33,000 Clinton emails. “What has the Journal been doing to get them,” I asked the WSJ reporter. “I don’t know,” I was told.

“The reason we are on the story,” the reporter continued, “is that we understand from our sources that [Robert] Mueller’s group is looking into the Peter Smith case.”

Well, yes, and that’s the special counsel’s job. A news organization’s job is to dig and advance the story. There is little evidence of that here.

Thomas H. Lipscomb is the founding publisher of Times Books. His news reporting has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, New York Sun and other papers. As a digital entrepreneur he has founded and served as CEO of two public companies based upon his patents.

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