Mueller’s focus falls on meeting in Seychelles

An Indian Ocean meeting between a Trump backer and a Russian official may have been planned to secretly discuss U.S.-Russia relations.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has gathered evidence that a secret meeting in the Seychelles just before the inauguration of Donald Trump was an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin — apparently contradicting statements made to lawmakers by one of its participants, according to people familiar with the matter. 

In January 2017, Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company Blackwater, met with a Russian official close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and later described the meeting to congressional investigators as a chance encounter that was not a planned discussion of U.S.-Russia relations. 

A witness cooperating with Mueller has told investigators the meeting was set up in advance so that a representative of the Trump transition could meet with an emissary from Moscow to discuss future relations between the countries, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. 

George Nader, a Lebanese American businessman who helped organize and attended the Seychelles meeting, has testified on the matter before a grand jury gathering evidence about discussions between the Trump transition team and emissaries of the Kremlin, as part of Mueller's investigation into Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 election. 

Nader began cooperating with Mueller after he arrived at Dulles Airport in mid-January and was stopped, served with a subpoena and questioned by the FBI, these people said. He has met numerous times with investigators. 

Last year, Prince told lawmakers — and the news media — that his Seychelles meeting with Kirill Dmitriev, the head of a Russian government-controlled wealth fund, was an unplanned, unimportant encounter that came about by chance because he happened to be at a luxury hotel in the Indian Ocean island nation with officials from the United Arab Emirates. 

In his statements, Prince has specifically denied reporting by The Washington Post that said the Seychelles meeting, which took place about a week before Trump's inauguration, was described by U.S., European and Arab officials as part of an effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and the incoming administration. 

Prince told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee that he did not plan to meet Dmitriev in the Seychelles but that once he was there discussing possible business deals with UAE officials, they unexpectedly suggested that he visit the hotel bar and meet Dmitriev. 

"At the end, one of the entourage says, 'Hey, by the way, there's this Russian guy that we've dealt with in the past. He's here also to see someone from the Emirati delegation. And you should meet him, he'd be an interesting guy for you to know, since you're doing a lot in the oil and gas and mineral space,' " Prince told lawmakers. 

The two men, he said, spoke for no more than 30 minutes, or about the time it took him to drink a beer. 

"We chatted on topics ranging from oil and commodity prices to how much his country wished for resumption of normal trade relations with the USA," Prince told lawmakers. "I remember telling him that if Franklin Roosevelt could work with Josef Stalin to defeat Nazi fascism, then certainly Donald Trump could work with Vladimir Putin to defeat Islamic fascism." 

Prince said he went to the Seychelles as a private businessman, not as an official or unofficial emissary of the Trump transition team. During the congressional interview, which became testy at times as Democratic lawmakers pressed him to be more specific in his answers, Prince repeatedly complained that he had reason to believe U.S. intelligence agencies were leaking information about his activities. 

Asked to comment on assertions that new evidence appears to contradict Prince's description of the Seychelles meeting, a spokesman for Prince referred to his previous statements to the committee and declined further comment. 

A spokesman for the special counsel declined to comment. 

Prince has known Nader for years and once hired him to try to generate business from the Iraqi government in the years after the U.S. invasion of that country. That effort was not successful, according to Prince's statements in a subsequent deposition. 

Nader, according to current and former officials, was known to Trump transition and administration officials as someone with political connections in the Middle East who could help navigate the tricky diplomacy of the region. 

Nader had also attended a December 2016 meeting in New York between senior Trump advisers and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, according to a person familiar with the matter. 

While Mueller is probing the circumstances of the Seychelles meeting, he is also more broadly examining apparent efforts by the Trump transition team to create a back channel for secret talks between the new administration and the Kremlin. Mueller was appointed special counsel to investigate possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether any Americans assisted in such efforts, and any other matters that arise in the course of his probe. 

Investigators now suspect that the Seychelles meeting may have been one of the first efforts to establish such a line of communications between the two governments, these people said. Nader's account is considered key evidence — but not the only evidence — about what transpired in the Seychelles, according to people familiar with the matter. 

Nader has long served as an adviser to the UAE leadership, and in that role he met more than once with Trump officials, including Steve Bannon and the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, according to people familiar with the matter. After the Seychelles meeting, Nader visited the White House several times, and met at least once there with Bannon and Kushner, these people said. 

Nader could not be reached for comment, and his lawyer declined to comment. 

Nader — and the Seychelles meeting — are also of interest to Mueller's team as it examines whether any foreign money or assistance fueled the Trump campaign, and how Trump officials during the transition and early days of the administration communicated with foreign officials, particularly Russians. 

Nader's cooperation with the special counsel was first reported by the New York Times. 

The UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective, according to U.S. European and Arab officials. Such a concession by Moscow would have been likely to require the easing of U.S. sanctions on Russia, which were imposed for Russia's intervention in Ukraine in 2014, those officials said. 

Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign or transition. However, according to people familiar with the Seychelles meeting, he presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump to high-ranking Emiratis involved in setting up his discussion with the Russian official.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Politics

Russia investigation: Special counsel Mueller subpoenas Trump Organization
Russia investigation: Special counsel Mueller subpoenas Trump Organization

  Special counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization for documents as part of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and its possible ties to President Donald Trump and his associates, according to multiple reports. The subpoena is the first directly connected to one of Trump’s businesses...
Trump News Today: President to visit next weekend
Trump News Today: President to visit next weekend

President Trump is likely to visit Mar-a-Lago on Friday, March 23, through Sunday, March 25  according to an advisory issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. The "VIP Movement Notification" was issued this morning. There will be temporary flight restrictions in the West Palm Beach area during his stay.  The exact time of...
Secretary of state, CIA director nominees face probable backlash in Senate
Secretary of state, CIA director nominees face probable backlash in Senate

The confirmation of President Donald Trump's picks for secretary of state and CIA director is likely to be hampered but not stymied by a mostly partisan backlash to their records in the administration and the decision that led to their nominations - the termination of Rex Tillerson for being one of the few Cabinet members, Democrats argued Tuesday...
We looked at almost 100 leaders who tried Xi Jinping-style power grabs. Here’s how they turned out.
We looked at almost 100 leaders who tried Xi Jinping-style power grabs. Here’s how they turned out.

Xi Jinping plays the long game.  The 64-year-old Chinese president is only half finished with what should have been a 10-year term, but he's already tossed term limits aside, and with them the rules and norms that have governed China's leadership since 1982.  The National People's Congress made it official last weekend, passing a set of constitutional...
Facebook, Twitter, Google CEOs face calls to testify to Congress
Facebook, Twitter, Google CEOs face calls to testify to Congress

Social media giants that have acknowledged Russians exploited their platforms ahead of the 2016 election face renewed bipartisan demands to explain to Congress what they're doing to counter abuse of their networks ahead of this year's congressional midterms.  Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee...
More Stories