Why Did the GOP Think the Russians Cracked Clinton’s Server?

I haven’t been able to track down precisely when or how the number 33,000 became so important to the conservative hive-mind. The number of emails that Hillary Clinton withheld (claiming they were personal in nature) when she turned over her records from her time as Secretary of State was initially reported as “31,000” or “almost 32,000.” Nonetheless, it became an article of faith on the right that the correct number was actually 33,000, and that the emails were not all personal in nature. They were convinced that Clinton was concealing evidence of criminal or corrupt acts. They were also confident that someone must have successfully hacked her server and thus be able to prove that she had committed criminal or corrupt acts.

I’ve come to believe that we need to take these right-wing articles of faith more seriously if we’re to properly understand how the Trump campaign behaved in the spring, summer and fall of 2016.

To begin with, if you look at the indictment of George Papadopoulos, you’ll see that Kremlin-connected Professor Joseph Mifsud told him on April 26, 2016 that “They [the Russians] have dirt on her”; “the Russians had emails of Clinton”; “they have thousands of emails.” Public knowledge that Democratic organizations like the DNC and DCCC had been hacked was still nearly two months in the future, but the controversy over Clinton’s email server was current and had been ongoing at least since she publicly addressed the issue in March 2015. This is consistent with the account of Papadopoulos’s wife Simona Mangiante who told the Daily Caller that George interpreted the mention of “thousands of emails” to reference the emails Clinton had deleted from her server.

To be sure, Simona Mangiante is trying to convince President Trump to pardon her husband, and she didn’t even meet Papadopoulos until “the spring of 2017,” so she has no firsthand knowledge of what her husband was thinking in April 2016. That her story tracks with current right-wing narratives should also be noted. But, taking her questionable knowledge and credibility into account, it seems credible that Papadopoulos initially interpreted Mifsud’s information to mean that the Russians had successfully hacked into Clinton’s private server. I’m not sure why the right thinks this is in any way exculpatory for anyone involved, but, if true, it should change how we view events in retrospect.

Now, I suspect that Papadopoulos shared what Mifsud told him about the Russians  having “thousands of emails” with a few people other than Australian diplomat Alexander Downer. For example, let’s look carefully at something Andrew P. Napolitano wrote in a May 12, 2016 piece for Fox News.

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.

I don’t believe that Napolitano learned of these rumors from “intelligence community sources.” Neither do I believe that he made this up out of whole cloth. The truth is, as his indictment demonstrates, Papadopoulos was dealing directly with people associated with or working for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). This is also consistent with reporting from Christopher Steele, whose October 12, 2016 missive stated that the hacking effort was initially handled by the MFA before being turned over to the FSB and then eventually coming under the direct control of the Presidential Administration (PA).

Asked to explain why PUTIN and the Kremlin had launched such an aggressive TRUMP support operation in the first place, the MFA official said that Russia needed to upset the liberal international status quo, including on Ukraine-related sanctions, which was seriously disadvantaging the country. TRUMP was viewed as divisive in disrupting the whole US political system; anti-Establishment; and a pragmatist with whom they could do business. As the TRUMP support operation had gained momentum, control of it had passed from the MFA to the FSB and then into the presidential administration where it remained, a reflection of its growing significance over time.

Given incomplete information from Prof. Mifsud and his MFA handlers, it’s easy to see how Papadopoulos could have been the (perhaps indirect) source for Napolitano’s garbled reporting. Back on April 26, 2016, when Mifsud shared the “dirt on Clinton” news with Papadopoulos, it’s quite possible that he also said that there was a debate roiling about how to use that dirt.

In any case, something seems to have convinced a lot of Republican insiders that Clinton’s server had been successfully hacked. And they continued to believe this even after the DNC and DCCC hacks began to roll out in June and July of 2016.  On July 2, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas called on Vladimir Putin to release the emails from Clinton’s server. Back in January, I wrote an entire piece on The Hunt for Clinton’s Deleted 33,000 E-mails which provided a lot more detail about the efforts than I intend to provide here.

The most significant effort was undertaken by a longtime Republican political operative from Chicago named Peter W. Smith. Mr. Smith committed suicide not long after the Wall Street Journal questioned him about his efforts to obtain the 33,000 emails from the Russians.

Months after he said he’d started to quietly work to contact Russian hackers to look for a cache of Hillary Clinton‘s emails, Peter W. Smith called The Wall Street Journal on May 4 to explain.

The next day, the longtime Republican operative and donor checked into a hotel near the Mayo Clinic, far from his Chicago-area home, police records show. Smith, 81, would kill himself there fewer than 10 days later.

Mr. Smith’s efforts to obtain the emails began in earnest over the Labor Day weekend in 2016, and were reportedly coordinated with Michael Flynn and his son, which shows how persistent the belief in the hacking of Clinton’s server was and how high up it went in the campaign.

In this context, it’s also important to know that Carter Page was a possible source for the continuous belief that the Russians had cracked Clinton’s server. This is from Christopher Steele’s July 19, 2016 report:

Speaking separately, also in July 2016, an official close to Presidential Administration Head, IVANOV, confided in a compatriot that a senior colleague in the Internal Political Department of the PA, DIVYEKIN (nfd) also had met secretly with PAGE on his recent visit. Their agenda had included DIVEYKIN raising a dossier of ‘kompromat’ the Kremlin possessed on Democratic presidential rival, Hillary CLINTON, and its possible release to the Republican’s campaign team.

As part of both their criminal and counterintelligence investigations of Clinton’s email server, the FBI looked very closely for evidence that she had been hacked. As James Comey disclosed in early July 2016, they found none. But they also could not preclude the possibility that a hacker had succeeded in breaking in and covering their tracks. This opening, no doubt contributed to the right-wing hope that Clinton’s candidacy would be submarined by the eventual release of her deleted emails. But I suspect that that hope had it’s origins with Papadopoulos, and I also suspect that Donald Trump Jr. was expecting to get his hands on those emails when he agreed to take the meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower.

Needless to say, if the Russians had succeeded in breaking into the Secretary of State’s email server, it would have been a massive security breach (which is why Comey said Clinton was “extremely reckless”) as well as a major crime.  It is in no way exculpatory that the Trump campaign may have been mistaking where the Russians’ damaging hacked emails would originate, nor that they persisted in believing that the server hacks would come even after the DNC and DCCC hacks were rolled out. The fact is that they fervently hoped that the Russians would release stolen and classified U.S. government documents to help them win their campaign, and that is actually far worse than using stolen documents from the the Democratic National Headquarters or John Podesta.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.