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Russia scandal takes an alarming turn for Trump World

What would collusion between Team Trump and Russia look like? In what form? Through what mechanisms? A possible answer is coming into focus.
Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin responds to US President Donald Trump ordering missile strikes on Syria
A combo picture made reissued on 07 April 2017 shows US President Donald J. Trump (L) at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 09 February 2017, and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) in St. Petersburg, Russia, 03 April 2017.

On Thursday night, the Wall Street Journal published an important piece on Donald Trump's Russia scandal, noting that a longtime Republican operative, Peter Smith, assembled a team that set out to obtain Hillary Clinton emails. To that end, Smith and his cohorts reached out to people they believed to be Russian hackers, affiliated with Russia's government, because Smith and his cohorts thought these hackers may have stolen the materials.

The point, as we discussed last week, was to then use the stolen documents in the United States, exploiting materials from Russia to affect the American election. In other words, we're talking about a group of folks who, in a rather literal sense, tried to collude with Russia as part of the country's attack on our election.

Just as importantly, while Smith wasn't officially part of Trump's presidential campaign, he did tell multiple people on multiple occasions that this project was coordinated with Michael Flynn -- who at the time was a senior adviser to Trump, and who went on to become the White House National Security Advisor in the Trump administration.

Over the holiday weekend, the Wall Street Journal moved the ball forward with some additional details.

A longtime Republican activist who led an operation hoping to obtain Hillary Clinton emails from hackers listed senior members of the Trump campaign, including some who now serve as top aides in the White House, in a recruitment document for his effort.The activist, Peter W. Smith, named the officials in a section of the document marked "Trump Campaign." The document was dated Sept. 7, 2016.... Officials identified in the document include Steve Bannon, now chief strategist for President Donald Trump; Kellyanne Conway, former campaign manager and now White House counselor; Sam Clovis, a policy adviser to the Trump campaign and now a senior adviser at the Agriculture Department; and retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, who was a campaign adviser and briefly was national security adviser in the Trump administration.

So, we're talking about some of the first real evidence of collusion between a Republican in the U.S. and Russians hoping to help put Donald Trump in power. These new reports are shining light on who this Republican was working with -- and the possibility of this man, Smith, working as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and the foreign adversary that attacked the American election.

Indeed, according to Smith, who died in April, he was in communications with top members of Trump's campaign team while he was trying to collude with Russian agents to obtain Clinton emails.

What's more, Lawfare published a provocative piece late on Friday night from security consultant Matt Tait, who described having worked briefly with Smith on his Clinton-email endeavor. "[I]t was immediately apparent that Smith was both well connected within the top echelons of the campaign and he seemed to know both Lt. Gen. Flynn and his son well," Tait wrote. "Smith routinely talked about the goings on at the top of the Trump team, offering deep insights into the bizarre world at the top of the Trump campaign."

His piece added, "The combination of Smith’s deep knowledge of the inner workings of the campaign, this document naming him in the 'Trump campaign' group, and the multiple references to needing to avoid campaign reporting suggested to me that the group was formed with the blessing of the Trump campaign."

As for the high-profile names Smith referenced as his contacts in Trump World, Tait wrote, "My perception ... was that the inclusion of Trump campaign officials on this document was not merely a name-dropping exercise. This document was about establishing a company to conduct opposition research on behalf of the campaign, but operating at a distance so as to avoid campaign reporting."

Trump and his allies wanted Clinton's deleted emails. The GOP candidate wasn't shy on this point, declaring at a press conference last summer, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re about to find the 30,000 [Clinton] emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let's see if that happens. That will be next.”

To that end, a Republican financier went to work trying to find those emails, talking to Russian agents, and telling people he hoped to serve as intermediary between Russian contacts and people he knew on Team Trump.

In recent months, those watching this scandal progress haven't just wondered about possible collusion and cooperation between the Trump campaign and Moscow. We've also asked related questions such as, what would that collusion look like? In what form? Through what mechanisms?

A possible answer is coming into focus.