A Trump associate reportedly set up a secret meeting to establish a back-channel between Trump and Moscow

Days before President Donald Trump's inauguration, Blackwater founder Erik Prince met with a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin in the Seychelles islands to create a communication back-channel between Trump and Russia, according to The Washington Post.

Officials with the United Arab Emirates brokered the January 11 meeting in the hopes of helping to encourage Russia to distance itself from Iran, a major Kremlin ally. The Trump administration has often expressed its skepticism of Iran, and Trump often derided the US nuclear deal with Iran on the campaign trail.

A former intelligence official in the Obama administration who met with Trump transition officials told the Post that "separating Russia from Iran was a common theme" on Trump's team. The Trump administration sees Iran as a threat to the US, and both Iran and Russia have been working to expand their power in the Middle East in recent years.

Prince reportedly approached Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, after Zayed met with Trump transition officials in New York in December. That meeting included former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and current Trump administration advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner.

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Key players in Trump-Russia connection allegations
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Key players in Trump-Russia connection allegations

Paul Manafort

Paul Manafort signed on as Donald Trump's campaign manager in March 2016. A longtime Republican strategist and beltway operative, Manafort had previously served as an adviser to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich -- a pro-Russia leader who was violently ousted in 2014. Manafort resigned from his campaign position in August 2016 amid questions over his lobbying history in Ukraine for an administration supportive of Russia. The former campaign manager reportedly remained in Trump's circle during the post-election transition period.

Michael Flynn

Gen. Michael Flynn was named President Trump's national security adviser in November of 2016. Flynn reportedly met and spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December, at one point discussing sanctions. Flynn originally told Vice President Pence he did not discuss sanctions -- a point the Department of Justice said made the national security adviser subject to blackmail. Flynn resigned from his position in February.

Sergey Kislyak

Outgoing Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak is the Russian official U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions -- communication Sessions denied during his Senate committee hearing testimony.

Roger Stone

Stone is a longtime Republican political consultant who served as a campaign adviser to Trump who continued to talk with the then-GOP candidate after stepping away from his adviser role. Stone claimed last year that he had knowledge of the planned WikiLeaks release of emails pertaining to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Stone recently admitted to speaking via direct message with "Guccifer 2.0" -- an online entity U.S. officials believe is tied to Russia. Stone says the correspondence was “completely innocuous.”

Jeff Sessions

Former U.S. senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama joined Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser in February 2016. Sessions was nominated to be U.S. attorney general by President Trump and was then confirmed by the Senate. Reports then emerged that Sessions had spoken twice with Sergey Kislyak while he was senator -- a fact that he left out of his Senate hearing testimony. Instead, he said in writing that he had not communicated with any Russian officials during the campaign season. Sessions defended himself saying he had spoken with Kislyak specifically in a senate capacity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The American intelligence community accused Putin in Jan. 2017 of ordering a campaign to undermine trust in the American electoral process, developing a clear preference for Trump as president. "We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump," the report read.

James Comey

Comey publicly confirmed in March an FBI inquiry into Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. “The F.B.I., as part of our counterintelligence effort, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 president election,” Comey stated.

Carter Page

Page worked for Merrill Lynch as an investment banker out of their Moscow office for three years before joining Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser. During his time with Merrill Lynch, Page advised transactions for two major Russian entities. Page has called Washington "hypocritical" for focusing on corruption and democratization in addressing U.S. relations with Russia. While Page is someone Trump camp has seemingly tried to distance itself from, Page recently said he has made frequent visits to Trump Tower.

J.D. Gordon

Before Gordon joined the Trump campaign as a national security adviser in March 2016, he served as a Pentagon spokesman from 2005 through 2009. Like others involved in Trump-Russia allegations, Gordon met with ambassador Kislyak in July at the Republican National Convention, but has since denied any wrongdoing in their conversation. He advocated for and worked to revise the RNC language on and position toward Ukraine relations, so it was more friendly toward Russia's dealings in the country.

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Despite not having an official role with the transition, Prince reportedly told Zayed that he was authorized to act as an unofficial surrogate for Trump. He then asked Zayed to set up a meeting with the Russian, whom sources did not identify to the Post.

Prince is known to have close connections to the Trump administration. He donated $250,000 to support the Trump campaign last year, has close ties to Bannon, is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and was seen in the Trump transition offices in December, according to the Post.

US officials told the Post that the FBI is looking into the Seychelles meeting as part of its investigation into ties between Trump associates and Russia. White House press secretary Sean Spicer told the Post that the administration was "not aware of any meetings and Erik Prince had no role in the transition."

A spokesman for Prince said the meeting "had nothing to do with President Trump."

"Why is the so-called under-resourced intelligence community messing around with surveillance of American citizens when they should be hunting terrorists?" the spokesman said in a statement to the Post.

But the Post noted that Prince would have been the ideal go-between for the Trump administration, the UAE, and Russia considering his connections to high-ranking Emiratis. He moved to the UAE in 2010 and has done work for the country's government.

And Zayed had the necessary connections to Russia — he reportedly met with Putin twice in 2016.

It's possible that Trump's team signed off on the secret Seychelles meeting, according to an American businessman who knows Zayed.

Zayed "is very cautious," the source said, adding there "had to be a nod" from aides to Trump and Putin before Zayed would feel comfortable arranging the meeting.

The Intercept reported earlier this year that Prince was "lurking in the shadows of the incoming Trump administration" as an unofficial adviser. Prince's wife reportedly posted photos from Trump's campaign headquarters on election night.

Trump associates have been under scrutiny for their connections to Russia. The intelligence committees in both the House and Senate are investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the FBI has its own probe as well.

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