Erik Prince — brother of new education secretary Betsy DeVos, major donor to President Donald Trump’s campaign, and patriotic founder of Blackwater, the private military corporation that made everybody else’s life harder in Iraq — allegedly used his connections with an Arab crown prince to set up a secret line of communication between the Trump campaign and Russians connected to the Putin regime… before Trump became president, according to reporting by the Washington Post, NBC News, and others.
That sounds like a rejected “Rainbow Six” plotline, right? Let the Washington Post walk us through it:
The United Arab Emirates arranged a secret meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump, according to U.S., European and Arab officials.
The meeting took place around Jan. 11 — nine days before Trump’s inauguration — in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, officials said. Though the full agenda remains unclear, 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 that would likely require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions.
Prince’s secret meeting in the Seychelles would be weird in any case. The billionaire is a former Navy SEAL best known for buying thousands of acres of North Carolina brush and establishing the private trigger-pulling company Blackwater, whose excessive contracts, excessive partying, and excessive force helped set America back just a tad in its Iraq operations. Maybe he figured cloak-and-dagger with some Russians would burnish his Jack Ryan cred.
Prince also was a big financial backer of Trump and spent a lot of time on Breitbart’s radio show last year slamming Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, falsely claiming she was part of a child-sex ring and predicting — wrongly, it turns out — that emails from disgraced ex-congressman Anthony Weiner would get a bunch of his fellow Democrats sent to jail:
Since selling off Blackwater, Prince has spent much of his time at a home in Abu Dhabi, setting up an army for the U.A.E.’s rulers and doing them various favors. But those Emirati connections are now the key to the government’s probe into contacts between the incoming Trump administration and Russia.
“Though Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign or transition team, he presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump to high-ranking Emiratis involved in setting up his meeting with the Putin confidant,” the Post reports.
Prince was on hand when Trump won the election and observed taking meetings in Trump Tower during the presidential transition in December.
That’s the same month that Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi — Prince’s close friend and business associate — quietly came to New York for a meeting with Trump aides Stephen Bannon, Michael Flynn, and Jared Kushner, the news reports say.
A month later, Zayed — who visited Putin twice in 2016 and was close with members of the Russian leader’s inner circle — “was approached by Prince, who said he was authorized to act as an unofficial surrogate for the president-elect,” the Post reported. “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.”
However much you hate government leakers and random tweeters with “game theories” about Russian collusion, this administration’s got a serious Russia problem and a butt-ton of questions to answer.
The Seychelles, a remote but wealthy archipelago in the Indian Ocean, “is the kind of place where you can have a good time away from the eyes of the media,” a government official from the islands told the Post. “That’s even printed in our tourism marketing. But I guess this time you smelled something.” The Seychelles are also a haven for offshore financial accounts, including one that Ukrainian officials say Trump advisor Paul Manafort’s Putin-connected clients used to launder money illegally.
So what does this all add up to? It means that — however much you hate government leakers and random tweeters with “game theories” about Russian collusion; however badly you want America’s leaders to be all Tom Clancy’d out, secretly saving the world with some handshakes and spycraft; however sympathetic you are to Trump’s attacks on the “fake news” — this administration’s got a serious Russia problem and a butt-ton of questions to answer.
For all the Trump administration’s bluster about how empty the Russia story is, these Russia-Trump connections keep popping up — only because journalists keep finding them. Even if you assume all the contacts were innocuous and overblown by anti-Trump partisans, why the hell were there so many of them? Why were some of those contacts so secretive? And why would you use Prince, a deeply divisive political crony who was already under US intelligence surveillance in early 2016 for his unsavory business dealings with foreign potentates, to set up one of those contacts?
The logical conclusion is not that Donald Trump conspired with a Russian dictator to steal the presidency. But it looks increasingly as if Trump, Prince, Flynn, Kushner, and Bannon all think they’re smart guys who don’t need a State Department, or Air Force One, or staffs, or media watchdogs, or sunshine of any kind, to engage with deceptive and dangerous people. They’re not the first presidential staffers to think that way. But they may be some of the least competent.