Hillary Clinton
Credit: Lorie Shaull/Flickr

When I was a kid, my parents watched the television program Lou Grant and sometimes they let me stay up and watch it, too. My favorite character on the show was Joe Rossi who was played by Robert Walden. There was something about Rossi that appealed to me, and I developed a fondness for the actor who portrayed him. Later on, when I was probably in my early teens, I watched the movie All the President’s Men about the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s downfall. I took a special interest in the character of Donald Segretti, specifically because he was played by Robert Walden. Even to this day, I can picture his scenes with Dustin Hoffman (Carl Bernstein) in vivid detail, with his sweater and his coffee and his beautiful balcony view.

I actually felt some sympathy for Segretti, despite the “nickel and dime” ratf*cking he did for the Nixon campaign. That was partly the intent of the screenwriters but also a result of my inability to fully disassociate the role of Segretti from the role of Joe Rossi on Lou Grant. It was only later that I came to despise everything Segretti and his University of Southern California “Trojan mafia” stood for.

And what they stood for was dirty campaign tactics. Segretti, along with other USC undergrads that went on to serve Nixon, like Press Secretary Ron Zeigler and chief of staff Bob Haldeman’s hatchet man Dwight Chapin, cut his teeth running student government campaigns. In the movie, Segretti claims that what they did for Nixon was tame compared to what they did in college.

One thing Segretti did for Nixon was to steal Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie’s letterhead and forge documents stating that Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson had an illegitimate child with a 17-year-old and that Senator Hubert H. Humphrey had engaged in sexual misconduct. You can recognize his tactics in some of the things you see Roger Stone and James O’Keefe engage in today.  More ominously, you can see a replay of the Trojan mafia’s efforts to achieve a conservative takeover of student government in Jane Mayer’s recent piece in The New Yorker where she details the activities of the conservative “charity” Turning Point USA.

There definitely was a nickel and dime feel to the dirty tricks Segretti pulled during the 1972 campaign when you compare them to the far more serious actions of the Plumbers with their break-ins and telephone bugging, or the actions of high-level players like White House Counsel John Dean, Attorney General John Mitchell, and Senior Advisor Charles ‘Tex’ Colson.  In retrospect, Segretti played a big part in the narrative not because what he did was so egregious but because it was discovered early on and was indefensible.  In the end, he was disbarred for a time and sentenced to six months in prison. He only served four.

I’ve never seen it explained exactly how Segretti obtained the letterhead of Ed Muskie, but I doubt he stole it himself. Instead, he encouraged someone else to steal Muskie’s property and then used it for his own purposes. And this isn’t really any different from how the Trump campaign encouraged the Russians and WikiLeaks to illegally obtain emails that were wiped from Hillary Clinton’s private server. I always thought it was strange that people in Trump’s orbit, and Trump himself, seemed so convinced that the 33,000 erased emails were either already hacked or were at least obtainable.

On July 2nd, 2016, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas suggested that the Russians should be asked to obtain the 33,000 emails. On July 27th, Trump followed Cotton’s advice and made a direct appeal to the Russians for the 33,000 emails. This past May, GOP operative Peter W. Smith committed suicide not long after the Wall Street Journal questioned him about his efforts to obtain the 33,000 emails from the Russians.

The Journal stories said that on Labor Day weekend last year Smith assembled a team to acquire emails the team theorized might have been stolen from the private server Clinton had used while secretary of state. Smith’s focus was the more than 30,000 emails Clinton said she deleted because they related to personal matters. A huge cache of other Clinton emails were made public.

Smith told the Journal he believed the missing emails might have been obtained by Russian hackers. He also said he thought the correspondence related to Clinton’s official duties. He told the Journal he worked independently and was not part of the Trump campaign.

Smith let it be known that he was working in tandem with Michael Flynn and his son, Michael Jr.

I couldn’t understand why there was this widespread belief that the 33,000 emails were not only other than what Hillary Clinton had claimed (non work-related, private correspondence), but that they were already in the Russians’ possession, or easily obtainable to them. There is, after all, no indication that Clinton’s server was ever compromised.

New revelations about George Papadopoulos may solve the mystery:

During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.

About three weeks earlier [April 26, 2016], Mr. Papadopoulos had been told that Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign.

Let’s look at an article that Judge Andrew P. Napolitano wrote for Fox News on May 12th, 2016. This is a period of time in between April 26th, when Papadopoulos was told about stolen emails, and the incident three weeks later in the Kensington Wine Rooms where an inebriated Papadopoulos blabbed about the theft to the Australian ambassador. See if you can figure out why I’m citing this piece.

While all of this has been going on, intelligence community sources have reported about a below the radar screen, yet largely known debate in the Kremlin between the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian Intelligence Services. They are trying to come to a meeting of the minds to determine whether the Russian government should release some 20,000 of Mrs. Clinton’s emails that it obtained either by hacking her directly or by hacking into the email of her confidante, Sid Blumenthal.

As if all this wasn’t enough bad news for Mrs. Clinton in one week, the FBI learned last week from the convicted international hacker, who calls himself Guccifer, that he knows how the Russians came to possess Mrs. Clinton’s emails; and it is because she stored, received and sent them from her personal, secret, non-secure server.

Here you can see all the elements in precisely the right historical window. Papadopoulos was in contact with the Russian foreign ministry as part of his effort to broker a meeting between Trump and Putin. His Kremlin handler, Prof. Joseph Mifsud, served as both the go-between with the foreign ministry and the source of the leak on the stolen emails. There was as yet no suggestion that the hacked material came from the Democratic National Committee’s servers. The presumption was that they came from Clinton’s private server. The Russians appeared to be dangling this information to see what Trump’s team would do to win their release. They also re-introduced Guccifer as someone with inside knowledge of the hacks. A month later, on July 15th, Guccifer 2.0 will make an appearance and try to take responsibility for the DNC hacks.

Someone gave Napolitano this information and it came out garbled, partly because it was disinformation, and partly because Napolitano didn’t have a full picture of what was going on. But it became an article of faith that the 33,000 missing Clinton emails were out there somewhere and that they could sink Clinton’s campaign if they ever came to light.

This may also explain why Donald Trump Jr. agreed to take a June 9th meeting at Trump Tower with Russian intelligence assets who were promising dirt on Clinton. He might have been promised the missing emails, or he may have just had that expectation because he lives in the same fever swamps of right-wing media as folks like Napolitano. Most likely, though, news of the pilfered emails had filtered up to the top by then from Papadopolous. In fact, either directly or indirectly, Papadopoulos must have been the source for Napolitano’s article.

One part of the puzzle I think is solved. The Trump folks knew the Russians had emails but they didn’t initially know that the source was the DNC and they wrongly assumed that they were from Clinton’s private server. Nonetheless, they eagerly sought to convince the Russians to deliver the damaging information, and that desire explains a lot of their behavior at the time.

Somehow, even after the DNC (and other) leaks started coming out, the belief that the 33,000 emails were out there somewhere never died. That’s why Michael Flynn and Peter W. Smith were still looking for them around Labor Day.

If I’m right about this, it is admittedly an awkward kind of collusion. But even if it involves a bunch of poorly or partly informed amateurs and an odd mix of campaign hangers-on and high officials, it is a determined effort to truck with stolen material. It absolutely dwarfs anything that Segretti did, unless you think stealing official stationary and forging letters is the equivalent of encouraging a foreign adversary to break into the former secretary of state’s server and steal official U.S. government documents.

Segretti did four months in jail. He probably got off easy. He got his law license back after two years, and by 2000 he was serving as co-chair of John McCain‘s presidential campaign in Orange County.

If the people who colluded and negotiated with the Russians for Clinton’s emails aren’t treated more severely, they too will make a comeback and haunt us in future elections.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com