Erik Prince testimony could shed light on secret Russia meeting

Erik Prince: 'Exploring options' on Senate run
Erik Prince: 'Exploring options' on Senate run

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Story highlights

  • Prince never formally worked for Trump either during or after the 2016 campaign
  • He has maintained close ties to the Trump orbit and acted as an informal adviser on foreign policy matters

Washington (CNN)The House Intelligence Committee is set to meet Blackwater founder Erik Prince on Thursday for a closed-door interview that could shed light on one of the enduring questions of the Russia investigation.

His interview is designated as an "open hearing in a closed space," which means it will be conducted privately but the committee will later release a public transcript, likely with some redaction.
While Prince never formally worked for President Donald Trump either during or after the 2016 campaign, he has maintained close ties to the Trump orbit and has acted as an informal adviser on foreign policy matters.
    Prince is one of at least 12 Trump associates who had contacts with Russians during the campaign or transition. His role in the Russia investigation centers on a secret meeting in the Seychelles, a remote island chain in the Indian Ocean, with a Russian businessman tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
    Some key questions remain unanswered eight months after the meeting was first reported in the press. Lawmakers will likely ask about his communication with the Trump team about the meeting.
    The White House has said that it was "not aware" of any meeting between Prince and the Russians. A spokesman for Prince separately said that "the meeting had nothing to do with President Trump."

    Secret meeting in the Seychelles

    The Seychelles meeting happened after a complex series of events thousands of miles away.
    In early December 2016, Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, who's now a senior White House adviser, and Michael Flynn, who later served briefly as Trump's national security adviser, met at Trump Tower with then-Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. Kushner acknowledged this meeting in his testimony at the Senate Intelligence Committee in July.
    Kushner testified that the meeting attendees unsuccessfully explored options to open a secure communication channel with Russian military officials to discuss Syria. The Washington Post reported that it got a letter from an anonymous but credible source that said the gathering also included talk of arranging a meeting between a Trump representative and a Russian contact in a third country.
    Later in December, Flynn, Kushner and Steve Bannon, who was the campaign's chief executive and until August the chief strategist in the White House, met at Trump Tower with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. The United Arab Emirates never told the Obama administration that Zayed would be visiting New York, even though it is customary for foreign dignitaries to inform the US government about their travels.
    A classified intelligence report was written about the meeting and Susan Rice, then-President Barack Obama's national security adviser at the time, requested that the names of the Americans mentioned in the report be revealed, CNN reported. The Americans ended up being senior Trump officials, though it's unclear exactly which Trump officials were named. Officials from both parties say that this procedure, known colloquially as unmasking, is legal and is commonly done by top US intelligence officials.
    After that meeting, Prince approached Zayed and said he had authorization to act as an informal emissary for Trump, according to the Washington Post. Zayed then arranged the meeting.
    In mid-January 2017, Prince met the Russian businessman in the Seychelles. CNN previously reported that Prince met a close Putin ally. Prince's closed-door interview on Capitol Hill will be his first chance under oath to confirm the identity of the Russian he met.
    CNN reported that the purpose of the meeting, held weeks before Trump's inauguration, was to arrange a possible backchannel of communication between the Kremlin and the incoming administration. The Washington Post reported that the meeting was also about an effort to curtail Iran's influence.
    Prince told CNN's Erin Burnett in August that he doesn't remember the name of the Russian businessman but that he was "some fund manager." Prince said the meeting was solely about his personal business dealings and that the conversation "probably lasted as long as one beer." He denies any wrongdoing and strongly denies that anyone on Trump's team asked him to take the meeting.

    Close to the Trump orbit

    Prince never officially worked for the Trump campaign, transition or administration, but he was a prominent Trump supporter during the campaign, spent time around the transition office and has continued informally advising the Trump White House on some major foreign policy decisions.
    CNN reported that Prince met with Trump and Flynn during the campaign. He was also a major donor: Records from the Federal Election Commission indicate that Prince donated $250,000 to pro-Trump efforts last year. The FEC records, while sometimes imperfect, match Prince's name and address.
    In the months before the election, Prince regularly went on Bannon's radio show to promote Trump's candidacy and occasionally spread conspiracy theories about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Bannon hosted the radio program, Breitbart News Daily, before joining the Trump campaign.
    "John Podesta's emails, I can assure you, did not come from the Russians," Prince said in October 2016, referring to Clinton's campaign chairman, whose personal emails were released by WikiLeaks. "This idea that the left, and even the administration, even some in the intelligence community, are now claiming it's all the Russians is entirely too cute and very, very thin on any kind of fact or legitimacy."
    The US intelligence community later announced that Russia was responsible for the Podesta hacks and had transferred the information to WikiLeaks as part of its plan to interfere in the 2016 election.
    Prince attended the victory party at Trump Tower on election night, Bloomberg reported. During the transition, Prince met with members of Trump's incoming national security team, CNN has reported. He was also spotted riding the Amtrak and discussing policy with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and someone who now works on the National Security Council, according to Bloomberg.
    During the transition, Prince boasted about his influence in the Trump orbit, CNN reported. Around that same time, Trump appointed Prince's older sister Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education.
    More recently, he was recruited by Bannon and Kushner over the summer to help the administration devise a new Afghanistan strategy, according to The New York Times. He proposed replacing US troops with private military contractors -- like the fighters employed by his former company, Blackwater, which is now known as Academi. His ideas were met with heavy skepticism at the Pentagon and Trump did not embrace the plan.
    Prince may also be eyeing a future in politics, as the former Navy SEAL said in October that he was considering a potential US Senate bid in Wyoming. Bannon has expressed interest in persuading Prince to challenge Republican Sen. John Barrasso, according to a source familiar with Bannon's thinking.
    "I am a Wyoming resident," he told CNN in October. "I've had a home there for 25 years, was a resident of Wyoming for many years, already back when I was on the SEAL team. It is an option I'm looking at."