A former Republican White House intern and supporter of President Donald Trump met with an envoy close to Russian President Vladimir Putin in early January to establish an unofficial back channel between the White House and the Kremlin, multiple U.S. and foreign intelligence sources said Monday.
The Washington Post and NBC News independently reported that Erik Prince, the founder of private military contractor Blackwater, met the Moscow emissary on or around January 11 in the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.
The two-day meeting was set up by the United Arab Emirates which had an interest in the matter relating to Russia’s support of the Iranian and Syrian governments, the sources said. The meeting occurred roughly 10 days before Trump took office.
Flynn seeks immunity in exchange for Russia testimony
Monday’s reports came at a time of increased scrutiny for the Trump White House and multiple U.S. inquiries into potential ties between the president’s team and Putin’s government — particularly as it relates to Moscow’s reputed efforts to intercede in the U.S. election in Trump’s behalf.
A self-described libertarian, Prince, 47, a White House intern under former President George H.W. Bush, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican campaigns in the last 20 years — including $250,000 to Trump’s campaign last year.
Though Prince has no official connection to the current administration, he acted as an unofficial representative of the U.S. government during the meeting with Putin’s envoy, the sources said.
Prince does have ties to Trump’s team, however. He is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and is acquainted with senior White House strategist Steve Bannon.
Both Prince and the White House on Monday denied reports that the former U.S. Navy SEAL met with any Russian official as a representative of Trump’s administration.
“We are not aware of any meetings and Erik Prince had no role in the transition,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.
“Erik had no role on the transition team,” a spokesman for Prince said. “This is a complete fabrication. The meeting had nothing to do with President Trump.”
One official confirmed the Post’s report to NBC News but said it’s not yet clear whether the meeting was arranged under any direction from Trump’s transition or was initiated by the Emirates government for their own interests. A second intelligence source told the network that he believes the meeting was called to discuss Middle East policy, not Russia.
Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince testifies before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Iraqi private security contracting on Capitol Hill on Oct. 2, 2007, amid questions over his firm’s handling of security in the Middle Eastern nation. Monday, intelligence sources told U.S. media outlets that Prince met with a Russian envoy in January. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
The Post reported that the Seychelles meeting occurred after members of Trump’s team had already met with Russian and UAE officials in New York City.
According to the sources, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been aware of the Seychelles meeting and has included the event in its broad investigation into potential Trump-Russia ties. The intelligence committees in the Senate and House are also looking into whether there was any type of collusion between the president’s campaign and the Kremlin before the November election.
It is not uncommon for U.S. presidential administrations to employ non-official back channels with foreign governments, which are valued primarily because they are able to sidestep excessive media and political scrutiny.
The Senate panel held its first open hearings into the matter last week and said it planned to interview White House adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son in-law, who volunteered cooperation. The House investigation has been sidetracked recently by concerns that chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., may be too closely connected to the president’s administration to lead an objective inquiry.
“Why is the so-called under-resourced intelligence community messing around with surveillance of American citizens when they should be hunting terrorists?” Prince’s spokesman added, possibly referring to Nunes’ announcement last month that certain members of Trump’s transition team were swept up — “incidentally” and legally — in broad foreign surveillance efforts.
Earlier this year, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that the Kremlin launched multiple efforts last year to try and sway the election in Trump’s favor, including hacking into Democratic party web servers. Its report said Putin likely had direct knowledge of the efforts and could possibly have even ordered them himself.
Trump and his administration have repeatedly denied cooperating with Moscow in any fashion to taint the election. The White House has, however, acknowledged meetings between Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak, and ousted national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and Kushner. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, removed himself from any Justice Department investigations related to Russia after he also acknowledged meeting with Kislyak last summer. He denied, though, that the discussions had anything to do with Trump’s campaign.
The Post’s report said UAE crown prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan had perviously traveled to New York to meet with Flynn, Kushner and Bannon, but Abu Dhabi did not notify the Obama administration of the planned visit. Officials in Obama’s government only learned of the trip when Zayed’s name came up on a U.S. flight manifest.
Nunes rejects calls to remove self from Russia-Trump investigation
Intelligence sources told the Post that Zayed and the UAE’s chief security official coordinated the meeting between Prince and the Russian emissary with the goal of setting up a back channel between Moscow and Washington for the incoming Trump administration.
The Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, Yousef al Otaiba, issued a simple “no comment” to NBC News Monday, and declined to add context when asked.
Last week, Flynn offered to cooperate with any of the three current U.S. investigations into potential Russia-Trump ties in exchange for immunity — a request Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called “a bit bizarre.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all,” Barry Faure, the Seychelles secretary of state for foreign affairs, told the Post. “The Seychelles is the kind of place where you can have a good time away from the eyes of the media. That’s even printed in our tourism marketing. But I guess this time you smelled something.”
Prince’s former security firm, Blackwater USA, made headlines a decade ago after some of its officers killed multiple Iraqi civilians in a crowded town square. He later sold the company, moved to the UAE and now works for a Hong Kong-based firm, Frontier Services Group.
By Doug G. Ware