Prince denied there was any effort to set up a back-channel with the Russians
Prince insisted he had not acted as a representative of the Trump administration
In a combative hearing behind closed doors, Democrats pressed Blackwater founder Erik Prince about his meeting with President Donald Trump’s then-chief strategist Steve Bannon ahead of Prince’s trip to the Seychelles, where he met with a Russian hedge fund manager.
Prince’s testimony from last week was released Wednesday under an agreement with the House Intelligence Committee to be interviewed in a closed setting and later have the transcript made public.
Prince acknowledged that Bannon told him about a December 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, but he denied there was any effort to set up a back-channel with the Russians, as was suggested after his January meeting with Kirill Dmitriev in the Seychelles was disclosed.
Prince insisted to the House committee he had not acted as a representative of the Trump administration during the meeting with the Emirati dignitaries, though he was close to Bannon and sent him unsolicited policy papers during the campaign.
When the committee’s top Democrat, California Rep. Adam Schiff, asked Prince if anyone on the campaign indicated they were engaged in any discussions with the Russians through any channels, Prince responded, “Front side, back side, no side never got any indication of anything like that.”
Prince also said that his trip to the Seychelles, which he said was to meet with UAE officials about business opportunities, did not have anything to do with Russia.
“The Emiratis I’d just met with previously said, there’s an interesting guy from Russia you should meet if you have any business in the commodity space, which I do,” Prince told the committee. “I look at minerals and oil and gas. He said, you should meet him. So I met him in the bar and had a drink.”
In a statement, Schiff said Prince did not “adequately explain why he traveled halfway around the world to meet with UAE officials or Dmitriev.”
“On the details of this meeting, Prince was again less than forthcoming and sought to represent that his discussion with Dmitriev, which comprised a third of the time he was conducting meetings in the Seychelles, was merely coincidental,” Schiff said in the statement.
The transcript showed a combative hearing, in which Prince accused the committee’s Democrats of a fishing expedition and complained they were wasting his time.
Schiff and Prince got into a testy back-and-forth exchange, with Schiff threatening Prince with a subpoena if he refused to continue with the hearing.
When Prince objected to extending questioning for another 30 minutes, Schiff replied, “It’s not up to you to decide how long the hearing goes on.”
“It is, because I’m here voluntarily,” Prince shot back.
“You may be used to operating this way in your business, Mr. Prince,” Schiff responded.
Prince told the committee that Dmitriev expressed that he wished “trade would resume with the United States in a normal way.”
Prince and Dmitriev spoke about “trade matters and how the United States and Russia should be working together to defeat Islamic terrorism,” Prince told the committee. The two men also spoke about the prices of oil, minerals and other commodities.
The state-run investment firm that Dmitriev leads in Russia was sanctioned by the US in 2015. Dmitriev and Prince didn’t specifically discuss sanctions or Prince’s relationship to the Trump administration, Prince said. He didn’t relay his conversation with Dmitriev back to the Trump Organization, transition or administration, he added.
Prince said he hadn’t delved too deeply into who Dmitriev was in the moments before he met him at a bar in Seychelles.
Prince said he Googled him to see his picture, learned he ran a Russian hedge fund, and looked no further into Dmitriev’s connections to the Russian government.
“I was roaming, so data roaming is expensive when you’re overseas,” Prince said.
When asked why Abu Dhabi’s crown prince may have reached out to Prince after not having contact with him for some time, Prince said, “I think the Obama administration went out of their way to tarnish my ability to do business in the Middle East, and with a different administration in town, they probably figured that that downdraft wasn’t present anymore.”
Prince said he and the crown prince’s conversation stuck to the problem of terrorism and aluminum manufacturing costs.
Also in the interview, Prince accused former national security adviser Susan Rice and other National Security Council staffers in the Obama administration of leaking electronic surveillance of his meeting with the Russian in the Seychelles to The Washington Post, which first reported his Seychelles meeting.