Posts Tagged ‘Trump-Russia probe’

Secret Seychelles meeting Robert Mueller is zeroing in on in Trump-Russia probe

March 8, 2018

Why did Erik Prince meet with a Russian fund manager shortly before Trump’s inauguration?

Erik Prince arrives to testify to the House Intelligence Committee last year. He met a Russian fund manager in the Seychelles in January 2017.
 Mark Wilson/Getty

Special counsel Robert Mueller has gotten a new cooperator in the Russia investigation. And he’s testifying about what, exactly, happened at a mysterious meeting between a Trump associate and a Russian fund manager in the Seychelles, an East African archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean.

The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti, David Kirkpatrick, and Adam Goldman reported Tuesday night that George Nader — an adviser to the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates — is cooperating with Mueller’s probe. In a sign of his importance to the investigation, Nader testified before a grand jury last week.

That’s big because Nader helped organize, and attended, that curious Seychelles meeting on January 11, 2017, shortly before Trump’s inauguration. The meeting brought together Erik Prince, Trump donor and founder of the private security company Blackwater, with Kirill Dmitriev, who manages a Russian sovereign wealth fund and is thought to be close to Vladimir Putin.

Anonymous sources have long claimed to reporters that the purpose of the Seychelles meeting was for Trump’s team to covertly communicate with Putin’s team. After all, it happened just weeks after Jared Kushner reportedly told the Russians that he wanted to set up a backchannel through which they could communicate.

But Prince has hotly denied that that’s what happened, including in sworn testimony last year. He said he just made the Seychelles trip for business reasons, that he was in no way representing Trump, and that the meeting with Dmitriev was both entirely unplanned on his end and completely uneventful.

It appears, though, that Nader is telling the grand jury otherwise. The Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz and Devlin Barrett reported Wednesday that Nader is saying the meeting was “an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin” — and that Mueller has other evidence to that effect, as well.

We don’t yet know the specifics of what Nader is saying as part of his semi-voluntary cooperation (the FBI questioned him at Dulles Airport after a flight last month and seized his electronics, per the Times). But if Prince was acting on the Trump’s team behalf, it would demolish months’ worth of denials from both him and the White House that he was doing any such thing. And it would raise serious questions about just why, exactly, all parties involved were so set on keeping the Seychelles meeting secret.

The cast of characters for the Seychelles meeting

Trump wasn’t in the Seychelles, but Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan was.
 Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty

The people present to meet at the Seychelles on January 11, 2017, included the following:

Erik Prince is the founder of Blackwater, the private security / mercenary company that scored big contracts from George W. Bush’s administration (and some of whose employees were accused of killing Iraqi civilians). Prince has since sold Blackwater (which renamed itself) and gone out in search of new lines of mercenary business. Prince donated about $250,000 to Trump’s campaign and to outside groups supporting Trump, and was in contact with Steve Bannon during the transition. He also happens to be the brother of controversial Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

MBZ, or Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, is the Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates. MBZ did business with Erik Prince several years ago — the UAE awarded Prince a contract worth several hundred million dollars “to help assemble an internal paramilitary force,” per the Washington Post. Diplomatically, the UAE regime is close to Saudi Arabia, and unfriendly to Qatar and Iran.

George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman who has a decades-long history in international diplomacy, has lately advised MBZ. He visited the White House several times in 2017. He also at one point consulted for Blackwater.

Kirill Dmitriev manages the Russian Direct Investment Fund, a $10 billion Russian-government established sovereign wealth fund that’s under US sanctions. He’s believed to be close to Vladimir Putin. His fund was until recently part of the Russian government-owned bank VneshEconomBank, or VEB.

Finally, there’s the setting — the Seychelles Islands is a tropical archipelago nation a few hundred miles off the coast of eastern Africa. Its government brags that it is “the kind of place where you can have a good time away from the media.”

The context of the Seychelles meeting

Jared Kushner
 Mark Wilson/Getty

Potentially relevant context for the Seychelles meeting is that there were several other meetings of the various factions involved the month before, mostly happening in Trump Tower.

On December 1, 2016, Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn secretly met in Trump Tower with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Kislyak reported back to his bosses that, at this meeting, Kushner said he wanted to set up a secret communications channel between the Trump Team and Russia. (Kushner denies that this happened.)

Days later, the Washington Post received an anonymous letter revealing that this secret meeting happened and who was present (though they couldn’t confirm it for several more months). The letter also claimed that, at the meeting, Kushner, Flynn, and Kislyak discussed setting up a meeting between a Trump representative and a Russian in some third country, and concluded Flynn was too high-profile to go.

On December 12, Kislyak returned to Trump Tower and met with Kushner’s deputy. Then, on the following day, Sergey Gorkov, the head of the Russian-government owned bank VEB, stopped by to meet with Kushner. Again, these meetings remained secret for months.

Then, on December 15, 2016, a little over a month after Trump won the presidential election, the United Arab Emirates crown prince, MBZ, flew to the United States. There, he met with several Trump transition officials, including Flynn, Kushner, and Steve Bannon. What was strange about this was that MBZ did not inform the Obama administration that he was traveling to the US, as major foreign leaders usually do. Trump’s team didn’t disclose the meeting either, and it too remained secret for several months.

Erik Prince also visited Trump Tower twice during the transition, to meet with Steve Bannon, he later testified.

What happened in the Seychelles: Erik Prince’s account

Erik Prince testifies to Congress back in 2007
Erik Prince testifies to Congress back in 2007
 Mark Wilson/Getty

Prince’s story of how he ended up going to the Seychelles and what took place there, which he gave under oath to the House Intelligence Committee on November 30, 2017, is as follows.

  • One day, an aide to Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, invited Prince to fly out to the Seychelles and meet MBZ, offering few details. Prince characterizes the invitation as: “His Highness would like to see you if you can come out to the Seychelles.” Prince says he understood this as an invitation “to talk about potential business.”
  • So Prince accepted, and flew out there on January 11, 2017. A meeting of about an hour ensued with MBZ, “a couple of his brothers,” and others in his entourage. They discussed general issues in the field but no specific business proposal was made.
  • Toward the end of the meeting, Prince testified, someone in MBZ’s party casually “mentioned a guy I should meet who was also in town to see them, a Kirill Dmitriev from Russia, who ran some sort of hedge fund.” (Prince did not name Nader in his testimony.)
  • Prince accepted, and met Dmitriev at the hotel bar one-on-one for no more than thirty minutes. They discussed general issues in the field but no specific business proposal was made. Prince then stayed in the hotel that night, and left the next morning.
  • Overall, the meeting with Dmitriev was so uneventful that, he claims, he couldn’t even remember the man’s name a few months later. There was no follow-up to it. And Prince certainly never claimed in any way to be acting on behalf of Donald Trump.

Was this the secret US/Russia backchannel meeting that Kushner reportedly wanted?

The Washington Post was the first to unearth the Seychelles meeting, in a report by Adam Entous, Greg Miller, Kevin Sieff and Karen DeYoung published last April, which was sourced to anonymous “U.S., European and Arab officials.” Their account of why and how the meeting happened was very different from Prince’s. They write:

Following the New York meeting between the Emiratis and Trump aides, Zayed was approached by Prince, who said he was authorized to act as an unofficial surrogate for the president-elect, according to the officials. He wanted Zayed to set up a meeting with a Putin associate. Zayed agreed and proposed the Seychelles as the meeting place because of the privacy it would afford both sides.

So, per the Post’s sources, it was Erik Prince who said he wanted the meeting, who said he was acting as a surrogate for president-elect Trump, and who asked MBZ’s team to put him in touch with a Putin confidant. The whole purpose of the meeting was to be a backchannel between Trump’s team and Putin’s team.

That would sure seem to make sense, since all this happened shortly after Kushner reportedly said he wanted to establish a secret backchannel with Russia, and both MBZ and Prince made their own trips to see Trump officials not long after that. However, there was no actual proof of this.

Nader — and Mueller’s investigation more generally — could be providing the proof. It does not appear that Nader has been charged with anything, but the Times reported that when he landed at Dulles Airport on January 17 of this year, the FBI was waiting for him, at Mueller’s behest. They served him with a subpoena, questioned him and seized his electronics. They’ve questioned him several more times since, and he went before a grand jury for testimony last week.

It’s also worth noting that Michael Flynn has been cooperating with Mueller’s investigators since early December, and we haven’t seen any of the fruits of his cooperation yet. Flynn was present in the meeting in which Kushner reportedly told Kislyak he wanted a backchannel. He was also present when Kushner and Bannon met MBZ. He may well have told Mueller why the Seychelles meeting happened.

And if the Seychelles meeting was a backchannel — what actually came of it?

If it were to be proven that the Trump team wanted to set up the Seychelles meeting, the question would remain about what actually happened there — and why those involved wanted so badly to keep it secret.

One potential topic is, of course, the incoming administration’s foreign policy. In the first Post report on the meeting, their sources claimed that one topic of discussion was “whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria,” a topic that was very much of interest to the UAE.

But if this was merely about essentially above-board foreign policy discussions, it’s unclear why they would have had to happen with such secrecy, through a backchannel. (Rather than just waiting 9 days for Trump to be sworn in.)

Was money involved? The Russian who went to the meeting, Kirill Dmitriev, is a moneyman, after all. So is Sergey Gorkov, who met with Jared Kushner in Trump Tower weeks earlier. What’s more, Dmitriev’s fund was until 2016 actually part of the Russian government-owned bank Gorkov runs, VEB.

Furthermore, this week’s Times report says that Mueller “appears to be examining the influence of foreign money on Mr. Trump’s political activities,” and has previously asked whether Nader “funneled money from the Emirates to the president’s political efforts.” So he does seem to be following some sort of money trail.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously of all, there’s the possibility that this happened so that Trump’s team and Putin’s could secretly communicate about Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. So far, there’s no specific evidence that that’s the case. But we clearly haven’t heard the last of the Seychelles meeting.

https://www.vox.com/2018/3/7/17088908/erik-prince-trump-russia-seychelles-mueller

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Australian diplomat’s tip led to Trump Russia probe: New York Times

December 31, 2017

A Trump campaign adviser’s revelations to the UK-based diplomat eventually prompted the FBI to open an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, a US newspaper reports.

Trump and Putin (picture-alliance/dpa/AP)

A tip from a top Australian diplomat helped persuade US authorities to investigate Russian attempts to intervene in the 2016 US presidential election, the New York Times reported on Saturday.

Australian officials passed on information to the FBI that the diplomat, Alexander Downer, had allegedly received from George Papadopoulos, a former campaign adviser to Donald Trump, during what the Times described as “a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar” in May 2016.

Papadopoulos, an ex-foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign who is now a cooperating witness in the investigation, reportedly told Downer that Russia had thousands of emails that would embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Downer, a former foreign minister, is Australia’s top diplomat in Britain.

“The hacking and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were driving factors that led the FBI to open an investigation in July 2016,” the newspaper said.

Alexander Downer (Getty Images/AFP/D. Leal-Olivas)Alexander Downer has been Australia’s High Commissioner to the UK since 2014

The new revelation means that it was not just the so-called Steele dossier — allegations compiled by British intelligence agent Christopher Steele that Russia had collected damning information on Trump — that led to the probe, but also direct information from one of the US’s closest allies.

Read more: Donald Trump’s presidency: Taking stock and looking ahead

Closely guarded secret in the FBI

White House lawyer Ty Cobb declined to comment, saying in a statement that the administration was continuing to cooperate with the investigation now led by special counsel Robert Mueller “to help complete their inquiry expeditiously.”

Court documents unsealed two months ago show that in April 2016 Papadopoulos met with Joseph Mifsud, a professor in London who told him about Russia’s cache of emails — before the Democratic National Committee became aware of the intrusion into its email systems by hackers later linked to the Russian government.

The New York Times said that once the information from the Australian diplomat had reached the agency, the FBI kept it as one of their “most closely guarded secrets,” and avoided issuing subpoenas in the run-up to the election in November 2016, for fear of disrupting the campaigns.

Former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo dismissed Papadopoulos as a volunteer “coffee boy” only marginal to the Trump campaign, though it has since emerged that the foreign policy aide brokered a meeting between Trump and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before the election.

bk/se (AP, dpa)

http://www.dw.com/en/australian-diplomats-tip-led-to-trump-russia-probe-us-paper/a-41982452

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George Papadopoulos was working as an energy consultant in London when the Trump campaign named him a foreign policy adviser in early March 2016. Credit via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.

About three weeks earlier, Mr. Papadopoulos had been told that Moscow had thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign.

Exactly how much Mr. Papadopoulos said that night at the Kensington Wine Rooms with the Australian, Alexander Downer, is unclear. But two months later, when leaked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed the information about Mr. Papadopoulos to their American counterparts, according to four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.

The hacking and the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were driving factors that led the F.B.I. to open an investigation in July 2016 into Russia’s attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of President Trump’s associates conspired.

If Mr. Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. and is now a cooperating witness, was the improbable match that set off a blaze that has consumed the first year of the Trump administration, his saga is also a tale of the Trump campaign in miniature. He was brash, boastful and underqualified, yet he exceeded expectations. And, like the campaign itself, he proved to be a tantalizing target for a Russian influence operation.

While some of Mr. Trump’s advisers have derided him as an insignificant campaign volunteer or a “coffee boy,” interviews and new documents show that he stayed influential throughout the campaign. Two months before the election, for instance, he helped arrange a New York meeting between Mr. Trump and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.

Read the rest:https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/30/us/politics/how-fbi-russia-investigation-began-george-papadopoulos.html

Financial-Crimes Monitor to Share Records in Trump-Russia Probe

May 13, 2017

Senate committee requested the data from Treasury’s FinCEN

President Donald Trump after speaking at the White House on Friday.

President Donald Trump after speaking at the White House on Friday. PHOTO: ANDREW HARNIK/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Updated May 12, 2017 6:44 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON—A Treasury Department unit that specializes in combating money-laundering will share financial records with an expanding Senate probe into possible ties between Russia and President Donald Trump and his associates, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Senate Intelligence Committee requested the records from Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN, late last month, these people said. The people familiar with the matter didn’t specify the nature of those records. One person said that without them, though, the committee wouldn’t be able to reach a conclusion on whether there was collusion between Trump associates and Russia during last year’s campaign.

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After a flurry of explanations from administration officials for how and why President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, the President went on the record himself, saying the decision was related to the handling of the Russian hacking investigations. WSJ’s Jason Bellini reports. Photo: AP
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President Donald Trump talks to reporters in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. Trump, in an apparent warning to his fired FBI director, said Friday, May 12, 2017, that James Comey had better hope there are no “tapes” of their conversations. Trump’s tweet came the morning after he asserted Comey had told him three times that he wasn’t under FBI investigation.
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Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), a member of the intelligence committee and the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said in an interview Friday that he is particularly interested in information about shell companies, money laundering and the use of property transfers that may be germane to the committee’s Trump investigation.

Representatives for FinCEN and Sens. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) and Mark Warner (D., Va.), the intelligence committee chairman and vice chairman, declined to comment.

Possible ties to Russia, which dogged Mr. Trump during the campaign and so far in his presidency, resurfaced as a major political issue this past week after Mr. Trump fired Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey. Critics suggested that sudden move was an effort to interfere in the agency’s probe of potential Russian interference in the election, which both Moscow and Mr. Trump have dismissed. Mr. Trump has said he dismissed Mr. Comey because he wasn’t doing a good job.

On Capitol Hill, there is a separate House committee probe of alleged Russian interference to go along with the Senate investigation.

“We are confident that when these inquiries are complete, there will be no evidence to support any collusion between the campaign and Russia,” a White House spokesman said. Mr. Trump has repeatedly dismissed the FBI probe into the matter.

A former senior U.S. official indicated that federal investigators are examining whether Russian investments in any of Mr. Trump’s properties or business ventures could be traced back to Russian government sources, including Russian officials who might own banks that were lending money to Mr. Trump.

FinCEN receives hundreds of reports each day from financial institutions flagging suspicious activity, and it is tasked with making sure banks and other companies comply with rules to do so. It provides the data to law-enforcement agencies, and its own analysts examine the data to identify suspicious patterns of the flow of funds around the world. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, for instance, the agency took the lead in tracking terrorist-financing sources and using financial records to help reveal the structure of terrorist networks.

On April 26, Messrs. Burr and Warner requested FinCEN provide the same records obtained by the FBI, which has its own access to the information, in its Russia probe.

The Senate intelligence panel’s request was made because investigators, who have been reviewing U.S. intelligence reports about Russian interference in the 2016 election, came across information that led them to inquire about Mr. Trump’s business ties, these people said. It marks an escalation for the committee’s probe from its original focus on intelligence reports that were used to conclude Russia had meddled in the 2016 elections, as well as documents the committee is seeking from some of Mr. Trump’s associates, including his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his ex-national security adviser, Mike Flynn.

One person familiar with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s request for the records said investigators plan to look at Mr. Trump’s businesses, as well as companies that do business with him, and potentially a step beyond to companies that engage with those firms.

The inquiry could also include businesses owned by or associated with Mr. Trump’s family members, including Kushner Cos., where his son-in-law and now senior White House aide, Jared Kushner, was previously the CEO.

In 2015, FinCEN imposed a $10 million civil penalty against Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort for “willful and repeated violations” of anti-money laundering requirements, according to an official statement at the time. The agency cited a prior history of violations dating back to 2003. In 1998, FinCEN assessed a nearly $500,000 penalty against Trump Taj Mahal for currently transaction reporting violations. Mr. Trump hadn’t owned or been involved with running the company since 2009.

On Friday, Mr. Trump’s lawyers released a two-month-old letter stating that 10 years of his tax returns—which he has refused to disclose—show he has little income, investments or debt from Russian sources, save those items already publicly known. The letter gave no indication that Mr. Trump plans to release his full tax returns.

But those tax records are unlikely to say much about the complex network of financial transactions and companies that one would expect to find behind any Russian investments in Mr. Trump’s company or his various real-estate ventures, tax experts said.

“A Russian would not lend directly to Trump or his businesses,” said Steve Rosenthal, a tax lawyer and senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center in Washington. “A Russian would, for example, fund a Cyprus corporation, which would lend to Trump or his businesses, possibly through other intermediary entities.”

Write to Shane Harris at shane.harris@wsj.com and Carol E. Lee at carol.lee@wsj.com

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