The scandal surrounding President Donald Trump's alleged ties to Russia thickened a bit Monday after the Washington Post reported that "notorious mercenary" Erik Prince took part in a clandestine meeting with a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin "as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication" between Moscow and the White House.
U.S., European, and Arab officials confirmed to the Post that the United Arab Emirates brokered the January 11 tête-à-tête between the unidentified Russian and Prince, brother of Trump's Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos who founded the private security firm Blackwater—which rose to infamy after the 2007 Nisour Square massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians.
"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 be likely to require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions," reported Adam Entous, Greg Miller, Kevin Sieff, and Karen DeYoung. The talks reportedly took part in the Seychelles islands over the course of two days.
Investigative reporter and Intercept founding editor Jeremy Scahill, who has long-documented Prince's career as well as his ties to the UAE, reported back in March 2016 that Prince was under federal investigation for money laundering and "attempting to broker military services to foreign governments."
And less than a week after the alleged Seychelles meeting, Scahill also revealed that Prince—who "has a close relationship with Breitbart News and Steve Bannon"—had been advising the Trump transition team "from the shadows...on matters related to intelligence and defense."
Placing the Seychelles meeting in the context of a series of suspicious encounters, the Post continues:
The Seychelles meeting came after separate private discussions in New York involving high-ranking representatives of Trump with both Moscow and the Emirates.
The White House has acknowledged that Michael T. Flynn, Trump's original national security adviser, and Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner met with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in late November or early December in New York.
Flynn and Kushner were joined by Bannon for a separate meeting with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who made an undisclosed visit to New York later in December, according to the U.S., European and Arab officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
Responding to the report, White House press secretary Sean Spicer denied any awareness of the Seychelles meeting and said that Prince "had no role in the transition." Similarly, a Prince spokesperson called the story a "complete fabrication," saying that the encounter "had nothing to do with President Trump," adding: "Why is the so-called under-resourced intelligence community messing around with surveillance of American citizens when they should be hunting terrorists?"
But, as the Post notes, at the time of the Seychelles meeting, the FBI was already investigating communications between Russian representatives and members of the Trump team, namely Flynn and Russian ambassador Kislyak.
The Post story was published the same day that Trump and his supporters were up in arms over a report that former national security adviser Susan Rice had "unmasked" the names of some Trump associates who communicated with monitored foreign officials, an activity that was said to be "within the law."
On Tuesday, Rice addressed the accusation that the Obama administration "utilized intelligence for political purposes," telling MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell, "That's absolutely false."