The Far-Right Pushes a New Conspiracy Theory to Discredit Jack Smith

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A new conspiracy theory rising on the right is being deployed to help Donald Trump.

It claims that Jack Smith, the special counsel who is prosecuting Trump for his attempt to overturn the 2020 election and for his alleged swiping of classified documents, was part of a multimillion dollar extortion scheme when he was the chief prosecutor investigating and prosecuting war crimes in Kosovo. In the past two weeks, this unsubstantiated narrative has started popping up on fringe right-wing sites and social media posts. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser and QAnonish MAGA champion, has promoted this tale. These allegations appear to be in the early phase of the right-wing transmission belt that propels false stories and conspiracy theories from less prominent platforms to more established conservative media and toward the mainstream—often facilitated by Republican members of Congress. 

The participants in this current effort include a former DEA official who not long ago claimed to have evidence showing the Clinton Foundation was a criminal enterprise, a lawyer who represents the computer repair shop owner who obtained and passed along Hunter Biden’s laptop, and one of the most prominent election deniers of 2020. And this allegation is mostly based on a wild account provided by a Kosovo businessman who was twice arrested in Spain for extortion, who has disputed rumors that he was tied to Russian intelligence, and who has been linked to a Russian mobster.

This campaign against Smith is based on documents circulated by John Moynihan, a onetime DEA employee who says he handled money laundering investigations for the agency. Last month, he submitted to the inspector general of the Justice Department—as well as the IGs of the State Department and CIA—what he termed a “whistleblower complaint” (though he no longer works for the DEA) that charges that a blackmail ring was set up within the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, a European Union judicial initiative based in The Hague to prosecute war crimes committed during the Kosovo war of independence in the late 1990s. This criminal enterprise, Moynihan claims, “extorted millions of dollars from wealthy individuals targeted for investigation and/or prosecution by the Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office” (known as the SPO), which brings the cases tried by the chambers. Smith was the chief prosecutor for the SPO from 2018 to 2022, and Moynihan alleges that witnesses he spoke to said Smith was an “active participant” in this conspiracy. 

It’s an explosive charge: the prosecutor pursuing Trump being a power-abusing crook himself. But the sources for these unconfirmed allegations have told outlandish stories, and some of the promoters of this tale have track records of involvement in squirrelly endeavors to tar Trump’s political opponents. 

This is not Moynihan’s first rodeo. In December 2018, he and an associate, Larry Doyle, appeared before the House Oversight Committee, chaired by then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), and claimed they had evidence that the Clinton Foundation had engaged in serious financial crimes. The pair asserted that the Clinton Foundation was operating as an agent of a foreign government and that Bill Clinton had used its funds for personal business. But they refused GOP entreaties to turn over the 6,000-plus pages of evidence they said they had amassed, noting they had passed the material to the FBI and the IRS. “If you’re not going to share [the documents] with the committee and cut to the chase, my patience is running out,” Meadows groused.

Meadows pointed out the IRS had told him it would be fine for Moynihan and Doyle to share their files. “I don’t find how [refusing to turn over information] provides a good foundation for truth and transparency,” the congressman told them. Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) slammed the duo: “I feel like you’re using us for your own benefit.” He added there was a “little game going on here.” The Washington Examiner called the hearing a “fiasco.”

Moynihan and Doyle certainly had an agenda. They had sued the IRS in 2017 alleging improprieties related to how that agency handled the Clinton Foundation. They maintained that the foundation had underpaid its taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars. If they prevailed in court, they could be entitled to tens of millions of dollars for exposing an underpayment. That case is still pending. 

Moynihan did not respond to requests for comment.

Brian Della Rocca, the lawyer representing Moynihan in his crusade against Jack Smith, has played an important role in another MAGA project. He is representing John Paul Mac Isaac, the owner of the Delaware computer shop who came into possession of Hunter Biden’s infamous laptop and turned it over to Rudy Giuliani. Hunter Biden has sued Mac Isaac and others for disseminating material from his laptop. And Mac Isaac has sued Hunter Biden and others for defamation. 

Della Rocca says has “no comment at this time” about Moynihan’s complaint, adding he wants “to give the government the opportunity to review the complaint and take action.”

Patrick Byrne, a prominent 2020 election denier and ardent conspiracy theorist, has claimed credit for helping to launch Moynihan’s allegations against Smith. The former CEO of Overstock, Byrne tweeted a link to a story on the Moynihan charges that appeared on Gateway Pundit, a fringe-right site, and he declared, “I DID THAT. Well, the extraordinary federal John Moynihan and I.” He added laughing emojis. A website he created called Deep Capture was among the first to post the Moynihan complaint. Weeks prior to that, Byrne repeatedly declared on his Telegram account that he was involved in arranging a “liver punch.” He then used that term to describe the Moynihan complaint.

Mother Jones sent Byrne emails asking him to explain how he was responsible for the Moynihan complaint. He did not reply.

Byrne resigned as head of Overstock in 2019 after he admitted publicly that he had an intimate affair with Maria Butina, a Russian agent. He claimed the Deep State encouraged his relationship with her and that he “was being used in some sort of soft coup” against Trump. A year later, he was one of the loudest voices spreading assorted conspiracy theories and asserting the election had been stolen from Donald Trump. In December 2020, he participated in an unscheduled White House meeting with Trump, Flynn, and attorney Sidney Powell, during which they considered various schemes to overturn the election results, including Trump seizing voting machines. Weeks earlier, Byrne paid for a private jet to fly a group of Proud Boys to Washington, DC, to attend a protest supporting Trump and his false claim that the election had been rigged against him.

The heart of Moynihan’s case is an account from a 57-year-old Kosovar businessman named Halit Sahitaj, who lives in Spain and travels on a Serbian passport. A statement from Sahitaj dated October 3, 2023, is attached to Moynihan’s complaint. The statement doesn’t indicate who collected it from Sahitaj, but in his filing, Moynihan says he spoke with the witnesses he cites.

Sahitaj offers a wild and seemingly implausible account. He claims that in February 2020 he was contacted by a man who called himself Florian and who said he worked for the US State Department. Florian told Sahitaj that Kosovo intelligence suspected Sahitaj was a Russian spy and that he could help Sahitaj with this situation. Florian eventually revealed that he worked for the CIA. He noted he was interested in Sahitaj’s connections in Russia. According to Sahitaj, he officially recruited Sahitaj as a CIA informant. But Sahitaj doesn’t say whether he was able to confirm Florian worked for the intelligence agency.

Florian instructed Sahitaj to meet him at a safe house in Belgium and to bring watches worn by him, his wife, and their son. These watches and his car would be modified with tracking technology. All Sahitaj had to do was pay Florian 75,000 euros for these modifications and 12,000 euros for a training course and wire an additional 6,000 eruos to a colleague of Florian in the United States to cover expense for the training course. Sahitaj claims he did all this. Florian supposedly showed him a badge that said “Special Agent” and bore the initials “CIA.” 

This recruitment story does not match with what’s known about CIA procedures.

Months later, in June 2020, when Sahitaj was with Florian, the supposed CIA officer received a call from a man Florian identified as Jack Smith. On speaker, the man said to Sahitaj, “Hello, it’s nice to meet you.” Later Florian told Sahitaj that Smith wanted Sahitaj to assist his investigations. Then an assignment came: Sahitaj should contact people in Kosovo and ask them for money to be dropped from war crime investigations. If they actually paid Sahitaj, he could keep 10 percent and the rest would go into a “black account” to finance future operations run by Smith’s office.

Sahitaj says he approached three people with this offer, and they each angrily told him to get lost. Florian subsequently informed Sahitaj that he was mad at Sahitaj for blowing this job. But, he said, Sahitaj could demonstrate his “value” to the CIA by voluntarily donating 400,000 to 500,000 euros to Smith’s “black funds.” Sahitaj reports that he made a 400,000 euro payment, and Florian put Sahitaj on the phone with the fellow who supposedly was Smith. That man thanked Sahitaj. So by now, Sahitaj, at Florian’s instruction, had supposedly handed the CIA and this “black account” 493,000 euros of his own funds. He had not met Smith in person. At one point, while he was traveling with Florian, he saw Florian flash an identification card with the name Faik Imeri. 

The story continues. Sahitaj says that Florian arranged for him to provide false and incriminating testimony to Smith’s investigators during an October 1, 2020 interview. This was being done, he was told, at Smith’s behest. Florian also “tasked” Sahitaj with locating Russian oligarchs on the US sanctions list and offering to remove them from the list if they would sign a contract to work with the CIA, provide the agency information on Vladimir Putin, and pay into the “black fund.” Sahitaj maintains that Florian told him “during this operation I would be working directly for Jack Smith.” He says he found one Russian oligarch for this scheme. Then on December 15, 2020, according to his statement, Sahitaj was arrested in Spain for extortion and money laundering. He was imprisoned for ten months before he was released on bail.

Once again he heard from the man who Florian claimed was Jack Smith—via phone—and this fellow urged him to continue pursuing that Russian oligarch. Sahitaj says that he used this oligarch to cut a deal with another oligarch.

Not surprisingly, there is a supposed Hillary Clinton angle in Sahitaj’s account. He claims that in January 2022 Florian told him that Smith wanted to know if the second oligarch “was still in possession of evidence of corruption by Hillary Clinton” and that Sahitaj learned through an intermediary that the second oligarch “does still have the evidence and had not shared it with anyone.” Sahitaj’s statement does not provide any details regarding this alleged material. 

Then, Sahitaj recounts, he had a falling out with Florian, who abruptly dumped him as an operative. He says in the statement that he felt he “had been used by Florian and Prosecutor Jack Smith.” Sahitaj adds that he learned that Florian had swindled $16 million from the two Russian oligarchs, and one was demanding that Sahitaj pay him back for that.  

It’s a bizarre account from a fellow who says he handed a self-proclaimed CIA officer half a million euros to become his operative without ever ascertaining this man was truly connected to the agency and who was arrested for extortion and money laundering, not once but twice. In his statement, he acknowledges his first arrest. And according to El Confidencial, a Spanish outlet, Sahitaj was arrested in Spain in August. It reported he had allegedly “contacted various individuals and threatened to file false complaints against them in Russia or Spain to involve them in criminal cases if they did not agree to pay him large sums of money.” Spanish news outlets have described Sahitaj as an associate of a convicted Russian mobster. 

In a 2019 interview with a Kosovo outlet, Sahitaj said, “Anyone who thinks I’m a spy for Russia is a spy for Serbia.” He noted, “I know the Russian oligarchs, even those who hang out with Putin.” He maintained in this interview that Interpol files stated that he was not suspected of criminal activities such as espionage and money laundering.

It’s tough to confirm the key—and most outlandish—parts of Sahitaj’s story. But he did interact with the SPO. On April 22, 2022, he had an interview via phone with with Alan Tieger, a prominent lawyer who was a senior prosecutor in the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office. According to a transcript of the conversation—which Moynihan attached to his complaint—Sahitaj had indeed been interviewed by the SPO in October 2020. That was when, according to Sahitaj’s statement, he presented false testimony to the war crime prosecutors at Florian’s urging.

The SPO declined to comment regarding Sahitaj’s allegations or Tieger’s interview with Sahitaj. But in a court filing the SPO submitted last year—in which Sahitaj was identified not by name but by a witness number, W04730—the prosecutors asserted that Sahitaj has been spreading “fanciful allegations” and a “fantastical” account regarding his own actions and that the SPO possessed no material “suggesting that [Sahitaj] has a relationship with any intelligence agency.” 

Sahitaj could not be reached for comment.

Another statement attached to Moynihan’s complaint comes from Milaim Zeka, a 61-year-old, Kosovo-born Swedish citizen who is a journalist and a former member of the Kosovo parliament. Zeka is a controversial figure in Kosovo, with a history of arrests and acquittals. He was arrested in 2013 and charged for broadcasting a show in which protected witnesses against a group of former fighters for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)—an ethnic Albanian militia that fought for Kosovo independence and has faced accusations it committed war crimes—could be identified. Prosecutors said this was an effort at witness intimidation. He was later acquitted. Zeka was charged in 2018 with fraud and money laundering and subsequently indicted for threatening a prosecutor in the case. He was acquitted this year of some of those charges. Others are pending before an appeals court. He was charged in 2021 with illegally recording and photographing subjects of a story, but again acquitted.

Moynihan’s complaint does not mention Zeka’s arrests or his ties to lawmakers Smith prosecuted. It describes Zeka as a “well known journalist in Kosovo.”

In the Zeka statement Moynihan cites—dated September 26, 2023 and titled “Statement for the American Congress (not to be disclosed with media)”—Zeka recalls his own interactions with the self-purported CIA officer who Sahitaj knew as Florian. Zeka’s statement says that this man told him he had participated in the assassination of Osama bin Laden and that he said that Smith had been part of an attempt to extort 10 million euros from a Kosovo businessmen. Zeka maintains this fellow claimed that Smith worked with Serbian intelligence to create a “criminal group” in Kosovo that involved Halit Sahitaj. Zeka notes that he came to the conclusion that the this supposed CIA operative had “nothing to do with the CIA.”

Edlira Qefalija, Zeka’s wife, also submitted a “Statement for the American Congress” attached to Moynihan’s complaint. She says that she witnessed Zeka’s conversations with the man who claimed to be a CIA officer and that this person “on behalf of Jack Smith” told her husband that he could be arrested due to a 2003 real estate transaction and sent to prison for 10 years. But if Zeka paid 320,000 euros he could be cleared. She notes that Sahitaj loaned her and Zeka 100,000 euros for this payment but “it was [Sahitaj] who actually gave…the whole sum of money.” She also says, “I heard [the man who claimed to be with the CIA] was asking for money on behalf of Jack Smith in order for other people not to face possible charges.” 

Mother Jones sent Zeka messages asking who took his statement and whether he possessed any firsthand information implicating Smith in any wrongdoing. We also requested comment regarding his arrests. He replied, “You have read my statement. I have nothing more to add.” Qefalija, his wife, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

The statements from Sahitaj, Zeka, and Qefalija contain a whirl of allegations that are difficult to follow and assess. They appear tied to political disputes and intrigues related to the prosecution of war crimes in Kosovo. Bota Sot, a newspaper in Kosovo, reported in September that both Sahitaj and Zeka were involved in a wiretapping scandal related to Serbian intelligence and persons accused of war crimes. (Sahitaj has also been tied to a separate wiretapping controversy in Spain.) 

Neither Sahitaj nor Zeka, in their statements, present direct evidence of wrongdoing by Smith. His name only came up when mentioned by the man Sahitaj knew as Florian, whose credibility they each ended up questioning. Was Florian really a CIA officer? Or was something else afoot? Zeka’s statement also claims that this person was somehow connected to Charles McGonigal, the FBI official who pleaded guilty to money laundering, violating US sanctions on Russia, and accepting $225,000 from an Albanian American named Agron Nezaj, a former Albanian intelligence employee. 

Dibran Hoxha, a political analyst and activist in Kosovo, says Zeka appears to be part of an opposition to the SPO that has developed in Kosovo since prosecutors began targeting former members of the KLA, in addition to Serbs, for war crimes in the 1990s. “They want to delegitimize the functioning and the role of the court,” Hoxha explains. He adds that these critics, with their grudges against Smith, have seemingly found “a common interest” with Trump supporters in the United States.

The Justice Department did not reply to a request for comment regarding Moynihan’s allegations. 

The MAGA right has seized on Sahitaj’s uncorroborated story to disparage Smith. And there’s an interesting piece of history to this episode. In June 2020, the SPO announced the indictment of Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi. This came three days before he was to travel to the United States for a special summit with Serbia at the Trump White House. Thaçi had been one of the top commanders of the KLA during Kosovo’s war for independence. The SPO said that after a “lengthy investigation,” it could demonstrate “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Thaçi, who denied committing war crimes, and others had perpetrated “murder, enforced disappearance of persons, persecution, and torture.” It alleged the victims numbered nearly 100. 

In response to the indictment, Thaçi canceled his trip to Washington, and the summit was scuttled. This meeting, promoted as a step toward a final peace settlement between Kosovo and Serbia, was touted by the Trump administration as a major accomplishment. The talks had been brokered by Ric Grenell, a Trump-appointed special envoy. Some European diplomats feared Grenell had rushed the negotiations, which included dicey land swaps that had the potential to rekindle the fighting. Several months later, Thaçi resigned. (The Thaçi case is pending. He has pleaded not guilty.) 

Smith’s decision to indict Thaçi before the summit has long rankled Trump and his crew. Earlier this year, Trump, apparently referencing Thaçi, put up a social media post that accused Smith of seeking to put “a high government official in prison because he was a Trump positive person.” After Smith was appointed special counsel to investigate Trump, Grenell, a fierce Trump cheerleader and potential top national security official if Trump regains the White House, claimed that Smith had indicted Thaci purely for Smith’s own benefit. He tweeted, “Jack Smith’s actions to indict and imprison [based on] a 20 year old accusation simply because President Thaçi was negotiating a big agreement that would end Jack’s cushy job is a scandal.”

After Smith in June indicted Trump for mishandling sensitive government documents, Grenell declared, “He has always overplayed his hand in the cases he’s handled because he’s an emotional partisan activist. His Kosovo case is falling apart and his own witnesses there are now claiming he and his team at The Hague faked CIA officials to intimidate them.” Earlier this month, Grenell in an interview with America’s Future, a group led by Mike Flynn, slammed Smith as “willing to do anything, including manipulating the rule of law, to indict his political opponents and put them in jail. What Smith did to Kosovo President Hashim Thaci was purely political. It was designed to ruin President Trump’s negotiations to normalize relations between Kosovo and Serbia.”

This latest effort to undermine Smith echoes the Trump gang’s attempt to tar Joe Biden with allegations from Ukraine. Prior to the 2020 election, Giuliani, on Trump’s behalf, went hunting for dirt on Biden and his son Hunter Biden in Ukraine and ended up collaborating with Ukraine officials who have been cited by the US government as Russian disinformation agents. To concoct a scandal, Giuliani and right-wing media disseminated allegations from unreliable sources that emerged from the cauldron of Ukraine politics and that were unsupported or debunked. The made-in-Kosovo Smith allegations have a similar ring. Moynihan states in his complaint that he is unable to “corroborate” these “serious allegations,” insisting the Justice Department and other US agencies must investigate them. This lack of corroboration is unlikely to keep these allegations from spreading. For the moment, they are percolating within far-right circles. But if the past is any guide, they could soon be coming to a cable news show or congressional hearing.

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AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

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