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 scepticism 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.
Despite not having an official role with the transition, Prince reportedly told Zayed that he was authorised 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 $US250,000 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.