By Mike Kaszuba
Two years after his body was found in a Rochester, Minnesota motel room, Republican operative Peter Smith emerged as a figure who drew the interest of Robert Mueller III as part of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Mueller’s 448-page report, which was released Thursday, included a focus on Smith’s attempts to obtain deleted e-mail messages belonging to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton after President Donald Trump – then the Republican candidate — asked aides to seek the e-mails. Mueller’s findings showed that Michael Flynn, a Trump campaign advisor who would serve briefly as Trump’s National Security Advisor, contacted Smith as part of an effort to obtain the politically damaging e-mails.
Public Record Media (PRM), a non-profit based in Saint. Paul, obtained Rochester police documents related to Smith’s apparent suicide by asphyxiation in May 2017. Though a note allegedly left by Smith stated he was in ill health and that his death involved “no foul play whatsoever,” the episode left several key questions unanswered.
Smith’s computer analyzed by Mueller team
Smith’s son-in-law told police that Smith had a laptop computer “but that it was missing,” and a police file stated that it was “unknown” whether Smith had a laptop at the Rochester motel. Police said that photos taken by investigators did not show a computer at the scene. The police file also left unanswered how Smith, who had long lived in Chicago, had traveled to Minnesota, or whether he was there to see doctors at the Mayo Clinic, which is located in Rochester.
But Mueller’s report showed that the special counsel closely studied Smith’s e-mail traffic as part of its investigation – and also indicated Mueller had gained access to “a backup of Smith’s computers” and had conducted a forensic analysis.
While Mueller’s team said it could not confirm whether Smith “ultimately obtained the deleted Clinton emails” or had met with Russian computer hackers, the report documented the efforts Smith made to help the Trump campaign. According to the Mueller report, Smith “created a company, raised tens of thousands of dollars, and recruited security experts and business associates. Smith made claims to others involved in the effort (and those from whom he sought funding) that he was in contact with hackers with ‘ties and affiliations to Russia’ who had access to the emails.”
“On September 2, 2016,” the report added, “Smith directed a business associate to establish KLS Research LLC in furtherance of his search for the deleted Clinton emails.”
A month earlier, according to the report, Smith also contacted Trump campaign co-chair Sam Clovis and told him that “it is clear that the Clinton’s home-based, unprotected server was hacked with ease by both State-related players and private mercenaries.”
The report also documented Smith’s exchanges with Barbara Ledeen, another Republican official who was conducting a separate hunt for Clinton’s e-mails. At one point Ledeen, according to the report, said she had enlisted the financial help of Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater USA security firm, to help determine whether a series of Clinton e-mails she had obtained were authentic. Prince, the brother of Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, concluded that the e-mails were not authentic, the report stated.
Report examines WikiLeaks connections
The report also focused on whether Smith had any interaction with Wikileaks, the international organization that figured prominently in the 2016 election by publishing embarrassing e-mail messages and other data from Clinton’s campaign shortly before Trump was elected.
The report stated that “a backup of Smith’s computer contained two files that had been downloaded from WikiLeaks and that were originally attached to emails received by [Clinton campaign chairman] John Podesta.”
Mueller’s team said it focused on the two files, trying to determine whether Smith had obtained them before WikiLeaks had released them to the general public – a sign Smith may have had advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ activities.
But Mueller added that the “investigation did not otherwise identify evidence that Smith obtained the files before their release by WikiLeaks.”
Still, Mueller reported that in September 2016 – two months before Trump’s election – Smith “circulated a document stating that his initiative was ‘in coordination’ with the Trump Campaign, ‘to the extent permitted as an independent expenditure organization.’ The document listed multiple individuals affiliated with the Trump Campaign, including Flynn, Clovis (and Trump campaign officials Steve) Bannon and Kellyanne Conway.
“The investigation established that Smith communicated with at least Flynn and Clovis about his search for the deleted Clinton emails,” the report stated.
But it quickly added that Mueller’s team “did not identify evidence that any of the listed individuals initiated or directed Smith’s efforts.”
Smith’s death in Rochester, Minnesota
Smith’s last days in Minnesota had drawn the attention of national media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper said it had interviewed Smith approximately ten days before his death, and that Smith stated that he had received “batches” of e-mails given to him by hackers. But Smith told the newspaper that because he was not sure of their authenticity, he urged the hackers to give them to Wikileaks.
A document contained in Rochester Police Department files obtained by PRM described Smith’s prior Republican political work.
A two-paragraph summary included in the police investigative file said that “the focus of [Smith’s] national political campaign activity since 1992 has been on independent expenditures, including Troopergate disclosures involving President [Bill] Clinton.” Troopergate was the 1990s-era scandal that dogged then-President Clinton and raised questions about whether state police troopers in Arkansas had arranged sexual liaisons for Clinton when he was governor.
Police investigative records indicate that Smith’s suicide was meticulously planned and was, according to notes apparently left behind by Smith, related to his failing health.
The investigative file revealed that Smith left a note addressed specifically to the Southern Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office, and tried to make sure his death did not create any suspicions. “Sorry to have involved you and appreciate your assistance,” he wrote. “No foul play whatsoever – all self inflicted. No party assisted or had knowledge as an accomplice before the fact.
“Reason is recent bad turn in health since January, 2017,” a note attributed to Smith read. “Timing relates to life insurance of $5 million expiring.” A partial copy of Smith’s term life insurance policy was part of the police file, as was Smith’s passport.
A list of “personal wishes” found in Smith’s room was signed on March 29 – more than a month before he was found dead, and several weeks before he was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal.
According to the police file, Smith had checked into the Aspen Suites motel on May 5th, and his body was found nine days later. According to the file, a hotel worker told police that Smith had extended his stay on several occasions.
Police documents showed that Smith apparently committed suicide by placing a plastic bag over his head, with a tube that led from the bag to a nearby tank filled with helium. The records also stated that a Wal-Mart receipt was found in Smith’s room, and surveillance video at a local Wal-Mart store showed a man resembling Smith buying at least one helium tank the day before he was found dead.
In the days before his death, the file added, Smith was observed using a printer in the hotel’s business center – and also acting anxious.
“I noticed that he was sort of pacing,” said James Wright, a witness who was interviewed by police. Wright said he saw Smith in the hotel’s breakfast area earlier in the morning of the day when he was found dead. “He would get up from his chair, walk over to the newspapers, then go back to his chair and sit down for about 30 seconds and then get up and walk over to the newspapers again,” Wright added. “It seemed like he had a lot on his mind,” he added.
Hotel employee Chen Jin, who was working at the hotel’s front desk, told police she remembered seeing Smith working in the hotel’s business center using its computer and printer the evening before he was found dead. “When he left he said to me ‘tomorrow is my last day’,” she told police. “I assumed he was referring to checking out.”
After Smith’s death, PRM made a records request to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for its files related to Smith but was told in October 2017 that the agency was “unable to identify any main file records” that were responsive to the request. PRM has subsequently appealed the FBI’s “no records” determination.
Story updated at 9:49am on April 19, 2019