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.
Key Trump officials, advisers of note in the Russia probe
Key Trump officials, advisers of note in the Russia probe
The close friend to Donald Trump and CEO of private equity firm Colony Capital recommended that Trump bring in Paul Manafort for his presidential campaign.
R. James Woolsey
Woolsey, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has cooperated with Mueller's investigation and worked with Michael Flynn and was present at a meeting where they discussed removing the controversial Turkish Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen from US soil.
(Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
The former senior Trump campaign official and White House adviser was present and crucial during the firings of Michael Flynn and James Comey.
The former head of the Trump transition team following the 2016 election has said previously that he believes he was fired due to his opposing the hiring of Michael Flynn as national security adviser.
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.
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.
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.
2016 election winner Donald Trump is at the center of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russia's handlings.
Clovis, a former member of the Trump campaign, arrives on at the U.S. Capitol December 12, 2017 to appear before a closed meeting of the House Intelligence Committee. Clovis worked with George Papadopoulos, a former Donald Trump campaign foreign policy advisor who struck a plea deal on charges of lying to the FBI.
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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.”
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.
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.
Former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo (L)
Caputo waves goodbye to reporters after he testified before the House Intelligence Committee during a closed-door session at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center July 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. Caputo resigned from being a Trump campaign communications advisor after appearing to celebrate the firing of former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Denying any contact with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, Caputo did live in Moscow during the 1990s, served as an adviser to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and did pro-Putin public relations work for the Russian conglomerate Gazprom Media.
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Stephen Miller, White House Senior Advisor for Policy
Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer
Donald Trump Jr.
White House Senior adviser Jared Kushner
Executive assistant to Donald Trump Rhona Graff
White House Communications Director Hope Hicks
Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski
US Vice President Mike Pence
Former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci
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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.