How cocktail party chatter led a Trump ally to claim a 'deep state' conspiracy

Washington (CNN)A seemingly impromptu suggestion at a cocktail party in 2016 -- that Hillary Clinton's deleted emails were circulating among the intelligence community and the Trump campaign might be able to get hold of them -- has irked former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo for years, he said.

Now, Caputo believes the mention of those emails by a government contractor -- and that person's advice that the Trump campaign pursue sources in the US intelligence community for opposition research on Clinton -- was part of a government conspiracy to entrap members of the Trump campaign.
"I've always believed for two years that it was hinky," Caputo told CNN. "Sure, it could be a misunderstanding, or it could be the keys to the kingdom of God."
While he has no evidence to prove a government conspiracy, Caputo has been on a media blitz to draw attention to this interaction. CNN is not naming the contractor because the person agreed to share information on the events described by Caputo in exchange for anonymity. In an interview with CNN, the contractor denied ever playing a role with US intelligence agencies, saying, "This is insanity."
    "I made no offer. I did not entice these people. I just made a cocktail party statement that is now conflated into 'I am a spy,'" the contractor said.
    Caputo's claim comes as other former Trump campaign aides and President Donald Trump himself have ramped up allegations that there was a "deep state" effort by the US intelligence community to undermine Trump and his associates.
    When reports began to emerge this month that the FBI previously sent a confidential source to speak to advisers to Trump's presidential campaign after the bureau had obtained evidence those aides had ties to Russia, Caputo said he became increasingly convinced that the government contractor floating damaging information on Clinton was part of a setup.
    Caputo said he provided his version of events, as well as the names of those involved, when he testified before the House and Senate intelligence committees. He said he also provided the timeline of events to special counsel Robert Mueller's team when they interviewed him.
    A spokesman for the special counsel's office declined to comment. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Agency referred requests for comment to the FBI, which declined to comment
    Caputo said this particular interaction struck him as bizarre because of the contractor's government ties.
    The saga began in early May 2016, when one of Caputo's longtime colleagues, Kirk Bell, met the government contractor at a Washington, DC-area Kentucky Derby party, according to sources familiar with the exchange and text messages reviewed by CNN. Bell said he would soon be going to work for Trump and the contractor suggested the Trump campaign pursue sources connected to the US intelligence community for damaging information on Clinton.
    The contractor claimed to have seen emails that were allegedly part of the thousands Clinton deleted from her private email server. The contractor further claimed they were circulating among the US intelligence community -- even though they had purportedly been deleted -- and showed unsavory interactions between top State Department aides under then-Secretary of State Clinton and top aides at the Clinton Global Initiative. The missives allegedly suggested a pay-to-play relationship.
    It was an enticing suggestion, and Bell relayed his exchange to Caputo, who was already working for Trump.
    "I am trying to find hard copies, but that is really going to be tough," Bell said in a text message to Caputo. "I have my people out there looking."
    "OK. That's explosive stuff," Caputo responded.
    Caputo expressed interest in speaking with the contractor directly, and Bell passed along the appropriate contact information. But Caputo and the contractor never connected, according to both parties.
    In his exchanges with Bell, the contractor suggested the campaign target members of the intelligence community, particularly in IT.
    "There's a lot of DNI and NSA lower level folks that may be open to 'leaking' a copy. Maybe even FBI. Just a thought," the contractor said in mid-May, adding, "The Clinton Global Initiative emails are not 'classified'. So no issue there."
    Bell declined to comment. Caputo said he didn't follow up because he was worried he could put himself in a compromising legal position.
    "I refused it because I did not want to take custody of classified information," Caputo said. Even though the contactor was assuring the men that the emails were not classified, Caputo said he was not convinced. "I'm too afraid to touch them. This is not my first rodeo."
    In July, the contractor followed up with Bell, saying, "Breitbart article today claiming the NSA has all of Hillary's emails -- including the 'deleted' ones concerning her quid pro quo when SecState for her family foundation. Suggest Trump people comb the contractors in Annapolis Junction -- suspect you'll get a friendly ear there by some with copies to give."
    The contractor reiterated that they aren't classified, "so no legal issues to make public once received."
    In an interview with CNN, the contractor claimed to never have had possession of the Clinton emails, nor to have been able to independently verify the validity of them.
    "This is just really, really overblown," the contractor told CNN. "I made no offer. I had no possession. I said, 'Do your own math here.'"
    The contractor recounted hearing about the emails in the first place, which took place during a meeting with a business contact near the Fort Meade military compound in Maryland.
    The contractor expressed incredulity that the government had not recovered Clinton's deleted emails, saying something like "You've got to be kidding me that you guys can't find these emails," the contractor recalled.
    The business contact "basically alluded to me, yeah, and they're even worse than you guys think," the contractor said.
    As for Caputo, he remains suspicious. He claimed some of the specific deals the contractor mentioned later emerged when WikiLeaks began releasing hacked emails related to the Clintons.
    He believes that the government contractor may have been trying to frame Trump campaign aides by planting classified materials in their hands -- although he doesn't have any concrete evidence to back up that assertion.
    Caputo has also been unsatisfied by the lack of response, both from the committees he testified before as well as from Mueller's team. He said he grew more alarmed after the media reports that an FBI confidential source contacted campaign aides. That's when he decided to share the story with the media.
    "I am just as confused and curious about this as I have always been," Caputo said. "I think this needs to be investigated completely."