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Mayer writes: "Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of Blackwater, a former private-security company embroiled in controversy surrounding its use of lethal force against civilians in Iraq, makes a strange cameo appearance in the redacted version of the Mueller report."

Erik Prince. (photo: Getty Images)
Erik Prince. (photo: Getty Images)

Erik Prince Funded a Covert Effort to Obtain Clinton's E-Mails

By Jane Mayer, The New Yorker

20 April 19


rik Prince, the billionaire founder of Blackwater, a former private-security company embroiled in controversy surrounding its use of lethal force against civilians in Iraq, makes a strange cameo appearance in the redacted version of the Mueller report, which was released on Thursday morning. Prince, who is the brother of Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, is described as having provided some funding for a secretive effort to obtain Hillary Clinton’s private e-mails from shadowy operatives working on the so-called dark Web.

According to the report, Prince “provided funding to hire a tech advisor to ascertain the authenticity” of e-mails that conservative activists had obtained. Prince, who was interviewed by the special counsel’s team, said that the cache of e-mails in question turned out to be fakes.

The report, however, details a strange effort by Trump-campaign associates to hack into Clinton and the Democrats’ e-mail accounts that paralleled the Russian plot. According to Mueller, the effort began as early as December, 2015, and ramped up after Trump publicly declared, on July 27, 2016, that he hoped Russia would “find the thirty thousand e-mails that are missing” from Clinton’s private e-mail server. Mueller and his team never interviewed Trump, but the retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, the campaign aide whom Trump later appointed his national-security adviser, told them that Trump repeatedly asked to get Clinton’s e-mails. According to the report, Flynn tried to do this by contacting multiple people who might be able to supply them, including two well-placed conservative operatives, Peter Smith and Barbara Ledeen.

Smith, an investment banker and Republican donor, had helped finance an investigation of Bill Clinton’s sexual relationships in Arkansas, leading to the 1993 Troopergate scandal. Ledeen, a Republican Senate staffer, worked for Chuck Grassley. Grassley was then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and one of the fiercest defenders of Trump and critics of the Russia investigation. Barbara Ledeen’s husband, Michael Ledeen, had co-authored a book with Flynn. A spokesman for Grassley’s office described Barbara Ledeen’s efforts as her private pursuit, rather than an official effort undertaken by the senator’s office.

In December, 2015, Ledeen e-mailed Smith a proposal to obtain Clinton’s private e-mails, which, she claimed, “were classified” and had been “purloined by our enemies.” According to Mueller’s report, the proposal claimed that the “Clinton email server was, in all likelihood, breached long ago,’ and that the Chinese, Russian, and Iranian intelligence services could ‘re-assemble the server’s email content.’ ” In an account of Ledeen’s efforts, the Guardian cited notes by federal investigators that said her motive was concern for the well-being of her children, who have served in the U.S. military, and whose safety, she suggested, could have been undermined if Clinton’s e-mails had fallen into hostile governments’ hands. But, in her e-mails to Smith, as revealed by the Mueller report, Ledeen appears more focussed on partisan politics. She writes, “if even a single email was recovered and the providence [sic] of the email was a foreign service, it would be catastrophic to the Clinton campaign.”

The report shows that, though Smith declined to participate in the project at first, Ledeen went ahead and obtained a cache of e-mails. After Trump publicly called for help in getting Clinton’s e-mails, Smith initiated his own effort and circulated information about it to members of Trump’s campaign. According to Mueller’s report, in August, 2016, “Smith sent an email from an encrypted account with the subject ‘Sec Clinton’s unsecured private email server’ ” to recipients including the Trump-campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis. Smith reported that he was involved in efforts “to poke and probe on the above,” and that the Clinton’s server had been “hacked with ease by both State-related players and private mercenaries.”

Smith set up an L.L.C. for the project and structured it as an “independent expenditure group” that, under campaign law, could not coördinate with the Trump campaign, yet Smith circulated e-mails saying that his initiative was “in coordination with” the Trump campaign “to the extent permitted” by the law. The New Yorker obtained a document from Smith, from September, 2016, in which he claimed that he was working with the Trump-campaign representatives Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis, and Michael Flynn, and also with the Republican National Committee, Judicial Watch, Citizens United, and the conservative activist James O’Keefe. There is no evidence that any of these individuals were, in fact, working with Smith. But the Mueller report’s depiction of Smith, Ledeen, Flynn, and Prince’s efforts suggests that Trump and his immediate campaign orbit were deeply intent on obtaining Clinton’s private e-mails during the period when Russia was hacking into them.

In September, 2016, Smith and Ledeen rejoined forces, at which point Prince provided some of the funding for the operation. Mueller’s team obtained files from Smith’s computer showing that Smith had documents that WikiLeaks had stolen from the computer of the Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta, though Mueller found no conclusive evidence that Smith had obtained the stolen files prior to WikiLeaks’s public release of them. (Smith died in May, 2017, in what was ruled a suicide.)

In his remarks prior to releasing the report, Attorney General William Barr stressed that it is not criminal to disseminate stolen information, such as the e-mails that the Russians hacked from the Democrats during the 2016 campaign, so long as those spreading the stolen information were not involved in the initial theft. It appears that the Attorney General’s definition of the criminal law was narrow and careful for a reason—many Trump-campaign supporters were involved in tiptoeing right up to the line.

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