theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer. katherine molé mfa ... art director

Monday, October 15, 2018

Week 73: Without Russia INDICTMENTS to Feast On, SCANDALMONGERS Feast On Scraps

Mueller’s team has been quiet of late, so reporters are warming up the leftovers.
Robert Mueller


The scraping sound you heard while reading about the Trump scandal this week was the clank and chafe of a serving spoon reaching for the last edible morsels in the pot. Absent any additional indictments from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s pen or investigative breakouts by the news thoroughbreds at the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, it was largely a week of casseroles and soups made from news leftovers but reinforced with added bits of protein.

Not that I’m complaining! As every cook knows, when you reheat old ingredients, the chemical reactions recommence to break constituent elements into a variety of flavor-packed amino acids and sugars. If you read a reconstituted news story with the right mindset, it can be as rewarding as its first serving.

At the top of my leftover buffet this week were the new stories about Republican activist Peter W. Smith, with the Wall Street Journal doing the culinary honors. Before the election, Smith dove into the dark web in pursuit of the 33,000 deleted emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server—which he thought contained incriminating information—and hoped to make them useful to the Trump campaign. The Wall Street Journal, which wrote the first big story about Smith on June 29, 2017, conveyed his claim that he had obtained batches of emails from hackers but couldn’t authenticate them. Just days after talking to the newspaper, the 81-year-old dropped dead in a Rochester, Minn., hotel room. His death was ruled suicide by helium asphyxiation.

The Smith angle got a tasty reheating this week thanks to the Journal, which advanced the story with its finding that he had raised at least $100,000 from at least four wealthy donors to finance the hunt for the missing emails that he thought hackers—perhaps Russians—possessed. “Numerous people familiar with Mr. Smith’s quest have been questioned by Mr. Mueller’s investigators, including at least one witness who was called before a grand jury,” the newspaper reports. Smith met with Mike Flynn in 2015 when Flynn was just a Trump campaign adviser, the Journal notes. Flynn, you recall, was briefly Donald Trump’s national security adviser until the revelations that he had lied about his pre-inaugural discussions of sanctions with the Russian ambassador led to his sacking. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and currently awaits sentencing.

Is Smith a Russia scandal main course or an amuse bouche? In his Popular Information newsletter, Judd Legum adeptly reviewed the evidence this week without giving a definitive ruling. Smith’s quest for the emails left a trail that shows he was well-connected with both senior Trump campaign operatives and alt-right goofball Charles Johnson, and a bank wire to a fund for “Russian students” gives credence to the theory that Smith had connected with Russia hackers. Smith’s estate has surrendered his hard drives to Senate and House intelligence committee investigators, the Daily Beast reports.

Smith’s untimely death gives a woo-woo element to the Russia scandal that it has long been lacking. Usually when scandals erupt, wild dot-connectors descend on the story to discover intrigue and mystery not readily digestible for those with high evidentiary standards. The fact that Smith, who was experienced in opposition research, should croak just hours after he spoke enthusiastically with associate Charles Ortel about a new project would argue against suicide, but that’s what the police reportsays.

The Smith saga doesn’t show that Russian hackers—or anybody else—possessed Clinton’s deleted emails, but it points to a quest for damaging information that is consistent with the fabled meeting in Trump Tower between Russian operatives and the top brass of the Trump campaign—Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner. In the June 2016 session, the Russians promised to reveal “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Was Smith onto something? Was he being hustled by grifters? Or was he targeted for exploitation by Russian spies? According to the FBI, Clinton’s server was never compromised, making the rediscovery of deleted Clinton emails a low probability. Yet Smith’s professional association with Flynn, who became a part of the Trump inner circle, and his WikiLeaks connection—he solicited money for the organization and reportedly told possessors of Clinton emails to forward them to the organization—makes him a background object of interest.

Elsewhere on the Russia scandal buffet, steaming over the Sterno pots, we find the latest—and still inconclusive—dueling between Mueller and Trump’s attorney over the questioning of the president by the investigators. News that Trump’s legal team is scribbling answers to Mueller’s written questions doesn’t mean Mueller won’t still subpoena the president for a sit-down interview about obstruction. New York magazine served an excellent appetizer at midweek with a story about President Barack Obama’s plan to seal the results of the 2016 election should Trump make good on his threat to repudiate the results of the election if he lost. I can’t wait for somebody to completely reheat these ingredients and turn it into an entrée.

And in a weird bit of convergence—which I’ll call dessert—opposing sides in the Russia scandal loudly asserted their First Amendment rights. First, according to a crackerjack piece by the Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand, Trump’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit accusing his campaign of illegally conspiring to distribute stolen emails citing the First Amendment protections to disclose even stolen information. Meanwhile, Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS, whose firm commissioned the Steele dossier, from which journalists and government investigators have been feasting for almost two years, told the House Judiciary Committee he’d invoke First and Fifth Amendment rights in declining a subpoena to testify. “The Founders specifically designed the First and Fifth Amendment as fail-safe features should the three branches of government malfunction and abuse the rights of individual citizens,” Simpson lawyer’s letter to the committee stated.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still hungry. What I’m really craving is the investigative equivalent of the timpano that kicked off the epic banquet in the movie “Big Night.” Bring it on, chef Mueller.


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