Russian Backchannels, Lying to Congress, and Presidential Interference

The Russia investigation rolls on with more evidence of questionable conduct on the part of Trump and his team.

Two related reports indicate that representatives of the Trump team met with high Kremlin officials in Seychelles before the inauguration and then lied about it under oath.

WaPo (“Mueller gathers evidence that 2017 Seychelles meeting was effort to establish back channel to Kremlin“):

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has gathered evidence that a secret meeting in Seychelles just before the inauguration of Donald Trump was an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin — apparently contradicting statements made to lawmakers by one of its participants, according to people familiar with the matter.

In January 2017, Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company Blackwater, met with a Russian official close to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and later described the meeting to congressional investigators as a chance encounter that was not a planned discussion of U.S.-Russia relations.

A witness cooperating with Mueller has told investigators the meeting was set up in advance so that a representative of the Trump transition could meet with an emissary from Moscow to discuss future relations between the countries, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

George Nader, a Lebanese American businessman who helped organize and attended the Seychelles meeting, has testified on the matter before a grand jury gathering evidence about discussions between the Trump transition team and emissaries of the Kremlin, as part of Mueller’s investigation into Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 election.

Nader began cooperating with Mueller after he arrived at Dulles International Airport in mid-January and was stopped, served with a subpoena and questioned by the FBI, these people said. He has met numerous times with investigators.

Last year, Prince told lawmakers — and the news media — that his Seychelles meeting with Kirill Dmitriev, the head of a Russian government-controlled wealth fund, was an unplanned, unimportant encounter that came about by chance because he happened to be at a luxury hotel in the Indian Ocean island nation with officials from the United Arab Emirates.

In his statements, Prince has specifically denied reporting by The Washington Post that said the Seychelles meeting, which took place about a week before Trump’s inauguration, was described by U.S., European and Arab officials as part of an effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and the incoming administration.

Prince told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee that he did not plan to meet Dmitriev in Seychelles but that once he was there discussing possible business deals with UAE officials, they unexpectedly suggested that he visit the hotel bar and meet Dmitriev.

“At the end, one of the entourage says, ‘Hey, by the way, there’s this Russian guy that we’ve dealt with in the past. He’s here also to see someone from the Emirati delegation. And you should meet him, he’d be an interesting guy for you to know, since you’re doing a lot in the oil and gas and mineral space,’ ” Prince told lawmakers.

[…]

While Mueller is probing the circumstances of the Seychelles meeting, he is also more broadly examining apparent efforts by the Trump transition team to create a back channel for secret talks between the new administration and the Kremlin. Mueller was appointed special counsel to investigate possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether any Americans assisted in such efforts, and any other matters that arise in the course of his probe.

Investigators now suspect that the Seychelles meeting may have been one of the first efforts to establish such a line of communications between the two governments, these people said. Nader’s account is considered key evidence — but not the only evidence — about what transpired in Seychelles, according to people familiar with the matter.

Nader has long served as an adviser to the UAE leadership, and in that role he met more than once with Trump officials, including Stephen K. Bannon and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, according to people familiar with the matter. After the Seychelles meeting, Nader visited the White House several times, and met at least once there with Bannon and Kushner, these people said.

CNN (“Democrats say Trump associate may have misled House panel over Seychelles meeting“):

The founder of the security firm Blackwater did not mention to the House Intelligence Committee last year that a Lebanese-American businessman had attended a meeting in the Seychelles islands, a trip that has come under intense scrutiny in the Russia investigation, according to a review of the transcript.

In testimony last November before the panel, Erik Prince was questioned extensively about the January 2017 Seychelles meeting and whether it was an attempt to set up secret communications between the Trump administration and Russia. As Prince furiously denied that was the case, he also did not reveal that George Nader — a Lebanese-American businessman and Middle East specialist with ties to the Trump team — also attended at least one meeting there, raising fresh questions among Democrats about whether Prince misled the panel when testifying under oath.

Prince, a Trump associate and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, disclosed to the committee that he had met with United Arab Emirates officials and a Russian banker, Kirill Dmitriev, during that trip.

But according to a new report from CNN, another individual also was present in the Seychelles at that time: Nader, who also is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. According to sources familiar with the matter, Nader attended the January 2017 Seychelles meeting between UAE officials and Prince. Nader was also present at a bar when Prince met separately with Dmitriev, the chief executive of the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund, although it is unclear whether Nader was involved in the conversation, sources said.

This doesn’t add much to what we already know but it raises questions. While it’s technically illegal for US citizens, even those associated with an incoming President, to speak with foreign governments in this way, it’s hardly unprecedented. Incoming administrations naturally want to get a warm start in relationship building. Certainly, though, lying to Congress about it sends up red flags. And I’d forgotten that Prince was Betsy DeVos’ brother.

We also have related unsurprising developments reported by NYT (“Trump Spoke to Witnesses About Matters They Discussed With Special Counsel“):

The special counsel in the Russia investigation has learned of two conversations in recent months in which President Trump asked key witnesses about matters they discussed with investigators, according to three people familiar with the encounters.

In one episode, the president told an aide that the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, should issue a statement denying a New York Times article in January. The article said Mr. McGahn told investigators that the president once asked him to fire the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. McGahn never released a statement and later had to remind the president that he had indeed asked Mr. McGahn to see that Mr. Mueller was dismissed, the people said.

In the other episode, Mr. Trump asked his former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, how his interview had gone with the special counsel’s investigators and whether they had been “nice,” according to two people familiar with the discussion.

The episodes demonstrate that even as the special counsel investigation appears to be intensifying, the president has ignored his lawyers’ advice to avoid doing anything publicly or privately that could create the appearance of interfering with it.

The man simply can’t help himself. One also loves the kindergarten-level social understanding conveyed by the “nice” question. Telling the truth, one presumes, would not be nice under the circumstances.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Russia Investigation
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. drj says:

    questionable conduct

    Oh, come on. At some point it becomes unreasonable to not acknowledge the bleeding obvious.

    There is no innocent explanation for this. It’s treason, plain and simple. At the very least in the colloquial sense of the word.




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  2. Mark Ivey says:

    ‘Hey, by the way, there’s this Russian guy that we’ve dealt with in the past. He’s here also to see someone from the Emirati delegation. And you should meet him, he’d be an interesting guy for you to know..”

    Yep.




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  3. James Joyner says:

    @drj:

    There is no innocent explanation for this. It’s treason, plain and simple.

    We only know what we know. Do I think there’s an “innocent explanation”? No. But we don’t yet know what happened. And, even in a colloquial sense, it’s not “treason” to talk to foreign governments. This was post-election. My guess is that they were leveraging the future presidency to improve the position of their business empire. That’s corrupt as all get out but not treasonous unless he sold out our security rather than, say, promising to work to lift sanctions.

    I think I’ve been clear for going on two years now how awful I think these people are. I just think we have to guard against hyperbole.




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  4. drj says:

    @James Joyner:

    I am not really interested in having a discussion on the semantics of “treason” (although covertly acting against the national interest to “improve the position of their business empire” is at least getting awfully close IMHO).

    If you want to file this under “blatant corruption” that’s fine, too.

    What I am objecting to is the suggestion that there might be an innocuous explanation for all this extremely shady behavior. Something that is “questionable” might, after all, be harmless. A “red flag” might be raised because of the mere possibility of a conflict of interest.

    Based on what we already know, we’re way, way past this. Pretending otherwise might appear “balanced” and “fair,” but it’s not. It allows you (and your readers) to downplay the enormity of what’s going on, because you’re talking about possibilities instead of (near-)certainties.

    We only know what we know.

    Although this sounds reasonable, it amounts to a dodge. For instance, you don’t (and can’t) know whether at this very moment there is an invisible, disembodied unicorn floating above your head, but you’re not seriously entertaining the possibility, are you?

    The fact of the matter is that human beings normally operate on reasonable assumptions, rather than certain knowledge.

    This holds true even in the practice of science: Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance, has never been formally proven (because it can’t be – it can’t be tested), but that doesn’t mean that it is, at present, reasonable to doubt its validity.

    Withholding judgment can, of course, be reasonable; and it is never entirely clear at precisely what point it becomes unreasonable to do so if new evidence or patterns emerge.

    But it is equally obvious that withholding judgment for too long is unfair, too; and that this can be tantamount to dishonesty, or even lying.

    I would argue that we’ve passed that point a long, long time ago. And, moreover, that failing to acknowledge this amounts to providing cover to criminals.

    (I am, of course, not suggesting that this is your intention.)




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  5. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @drj:

    Based on what we already know, we’re way, way past this. Pretending otherwise might appear “balanced” and “fair,” but it’s not. It allows you (and your readers) to downplay the enormity of what’s going on, because you’re talking about possibilities instead of (near-)certainties.

    What it does is normalize the behavior…makes it seem reasonable…when it is anything but. I think enormity is a good word for it. I find it nearly impossible to believe, based only on what we know, that President Dennison is not being forced to resign by his party…the supposed party of law and order.




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  6. James Joyner says:

    @drj:

    But it is equally obvious that withholding judgment for too long is unfair, too; and that this can be tantamount to dishonesty, or even lying.

    I would argue that we’ve passed that point a long, long time ago. And, moreover, that failing to acknowledge this amounts to providing cover to criminals.

    Again, I think I’ve been clear in the long body of my posts on this subject that I think there’s something fishy going on with Trump and the Russians. There are simply too many ties and lies for it to be something above-board. At the same time, I don’t know what that “something” is. My hunch is that it has to do with the business rather than the election. Indeed, I’m still not sure Trump was running with an intention to actually win the presidency in 2016 but rather that it was a publicity tour that got out of control. I think it’s also possible that the Russians have something on him from a blackmail perspective. But there are so many people involved here that it seems a secondary option.




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  7. JohnMcC says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl: You keep preachin’, Brother!

    I have followed politics fairly obsessively since 1968. This past year I’ve found my eyes almost bugging out, myself to be speechless, needing to completely escape news for days at a time….stunned.

    The worst it could possibly be seems more and more to be the way it is.




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  8. CSK says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl:

    They’re afraid of his cult members.




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  9. Kathy says:

    “Trump didn’t do that. And if he did, you didn’t understand it. And if you did, it was corruption and not reason. And if it was treason, others have done worse!”




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  10. michael reynolds says:

    There was never any chance of Trump being anything but a catastrophic failure. There is no hope of recovery until he’s gone, and his poisonous vice president with him. He has to go if the United States is to salvage a shred of self-respect. There is already far, far more than needed to begin impeachment.

    What bothers me (as it does @drj) is that there really is no question – none at all – that Trump is openly committing obstruction of justice on a daily basis. He is openly corrupt. And we’re still hemming and hawing. No, we don’t know every detail of this disaster, but we know enough, more than enough, that we should be demanding Trump’s immediate removal.

    At this point someone will suggest I’m engaging in hyperbole. I’d point out that thus far my ‘hyperbole’ about Trump has been if anything, understatement. He’s been exactly what I said from the start he would be. He’ll go on being that guy until he is forcibly removed, preferably to a federal prison. He is vile, toxic, criminal, incompetent, stupid and yes, a traitor.




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  11. Modulo Myself says:

    Keep in mind that people like Flynn and Prince are insane. They believe all of the stuff about Obama being a secret Muslim whatever. Following that logic, the US Government under Obama was simply illegitimate. Their idea of treason really only applies to real Americans running the government, not an African-American or a woman.




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  12. Joe says:

    @drj:

    It is not everybody’s job to draw the ultimate conclusions all the time. And it can be counterproductive to draw too many too quickly. You are entitled to draw all the conclusions you want whenever you want and close the case. Nevertheless, I appreciate the fact that James is just reporting and commenting on what is now known. He is doing his job. You are doing yours. There’s space here for both of you.




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  13. teve tory says:

    I find it nearly impossible to believe, based only on what we know, that President Dennison is not being forced to resign by his party…the supposed party of law and order.

    I’m not remotely surprised. Old white uneducated conservatives have shïtty values, and the loudly religious are the very worst of the bunch.




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  14. Blue Galangal says:

    @James Joyner: I think a known known at this point is that the Russians not only backed Trump to win, they backed Trump as the Republican nominee. Trump trademarked MAGA in November 2012 and his lawyer confirmed in the spring of 2013 that he had commissioned electoral research for a 2016 run. This took place before the Moscow Miss Universe pageant. Trump may not have intended to win, or thought he could win, but the Russians clearly did, and their actions were aimed at that. Trump’s actions were clearly tied up in his business interests; but that does not preclude the Russians’ principal aim to install Trump as president.




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  15. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds:

    What bothers me (as it does @drj) is that there really is no question – none at all – that Trump is openly committing obstruction of justice on a daily basis.

    I agree that Trump is obstructing the investigation; we likely don’t have enough to charge him with obstruction of justice yet. I think, ultimately, Mueller will build a very strong case of that. I don’t know that he’ll find enough to indict Trump himself on more than that but, again, I don’t really know what the “more” looks like yet. It’s Mueller’s job to find that out and I think he’s got the resources to do it.

    @Blue Galangal:

    Trump may not have intended to win, or thought he could win, but the Russians clearly did, and their actions were aimed at that. Trump’s actions were clearly tied up in his business interests; but that does not preclude the Russians’ principal aim to install Trump as president.

    It doesn’t, although I still think their aim was to damage Hillary Clinton to the point where she couldn’t govern legitimately. That was the stronger bet.




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  16. CSK says:

    And…Trump sent Kushner to Mexico yesterday to meet with diplomats and the Mexican president to “smooth over” relations.

    Kushner did not see fit to ask the U.S. ambassador to Mexico to join them.




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  17. Kathy says:

    @michael reynolds: Trump should be removed simply because he cannot discharge the duties of his office effectively, and has no interest in even learning how to improve his current performance.

    I also see a problem in electing candidates who are not qualified, but I don’t see an easy solution to that problem. As the minimum requirements for the presidency are set in the Constitution, that would require an amendment.




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  18. michael reynolds says:

    @CSK:
    I assume Kushner’s going to look for someone to bail out 666. That’s the main concern of his ‘foreign policy.’ Hold onto your wallet, Carlos Slim, the desperate son-in-law is coming. On the other hand, if you’re a Mexican drug gang, leasing a few dozen condos might prove useful. It’s worked wonders for Russian mobsters.




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  19. Gustopher says:

    @drj:

    Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance, has never been formally proven (because it can’t be – it can’t be tested), but that doesn’t mean that it is, at present, reasonable to doubt its validity.

    We’ve proven the broad outlines of it with antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

    There are lots of little edges to it that need work (why didn’t cats evolve wings? don’t they know how cute they would be flying about?), and we have a tendency of dying off before experiments with larger animals can be completed, but we’ve got the small scale stuff nailed down pretty tight.




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  20. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    I still think their aim was to damage Hillary Clinton to the point where she couldn’t govern legitimately. That was the stronger bet.

    I believe the Russians are capable of both walking and chewing gum at the same time. Help elect Trump, and if that fails, make sure Clinton is damaged — either way, America is off kilter.

    Now, whether they thought Trump could actually get elected, or if they even wanted him elected for anything other than causing chaos… that’s an open question.




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  21. Gustopher says:

    What happened to my pretty avatar? Sad.




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  22. teve tory says:

    This holds true even in the practice of science: Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance, has never been formally proven (because it can’t be – it can’t be tested), but that doesn’t mean that it is, at present, reasonable to doubt its validity

    Sigh.

    creationist claim CA211.1: ‘evolution can’t be tested.’




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  23. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Mexico is purported to be one of the four countries that regard Jared as an easily exploited patsy, so any deal he got into with them would not be to his advantage.




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  24. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher:

    What happened to my pretty avatar? Sad

    Your avatar is tied to Gravatar, which in turn is tied to a specific email address. Did you previously have an icon showing up rather than the blue Gravatar logo? If so, were you putting a different email address in the form?




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  25. MarkedMan says:

    Remember, after firing Comey on May 14th last year, the next day Trump had a truly bizarre meeting with the Russian Ambassador and another Russian official with known ties to Russian intelligence. We only know two things about that meeting: Trump told them that firing Comes took a lot of pressure off him, and that he revealed “code word level” intelligence that had been given by an ally with the understanding that lives were at stake and that it would only be shared at the very highest levels of clearance within the US government. The idea that Trump is simply corrupt and there is no evidence that he is actively working on Russia’s behalf is naive at best.

    If I’m the school superintendent and I see the a bus driver leaving a bar at 1:30 in the afternoon before going to pick up students, a) I don’t have evidence to convict him of drunk driving, but b) I certainly should stop him from driving the bus.

    We need to stop Trump from driving the bus.




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  26. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner: I haven’t changed my email, I think…




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  27. Gustopher says:

    @Gustopher: Well, that’s odd. Posting from a different device shows the avatar.

    Probably a stupid Gustopher error.




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  28. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher: Yes, very strange. Even in the site backend, these last two comments show the Gravatar and the previous three do not. And, yes, they appear to have the same email associated.




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  29. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    We’ve proven the broad outlines of it with antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

    There are lots of little edges to it that need work (why didn’t cats evolve wings? don’t they know how cute they would be flying about?)

    One criteria for a successful theory is whether it can make testable predictions. Darwin’s theory can do this, though testing is chancy depending on a) what got preserved in the fossil record and b) what of that record gets found.

    But one prediction was of a transitional form between dinosaurs and birds. This was found with the fossil of Archaeopteryx.

    As to your other point, had cats developed wings, we’d still be worshiping them as gods. I mean, more than we do already.




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  30. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner:

    Indeed, I’m still not sure Trump was running with an intention to actually win the presidency in 2016 but rather that it was a publicity tour that got out of control.

    Indeed. After the election Trump and his team looked like the dog that caught the car. (The Russians did too.) Flynn or Manafort or one of them (even I lose track) was asked why he was taking a questionable meeting shortly before the election and replied it wouldn’t matter after they lost. And the Russians may well have had the more realistic goal of causing chaos, not electing Trump.

    Long ago in my Lutheran catechism class it said, IIRC, ‘love they neighbor and put the most charitable construction on all that he does.’ Prince is right that talking to Russians, even having a back channel, isn’t illegal. I’m sure if they needed it the Clinton campaign, being experienced professionals, could have arranged a back channel with about three phone calls. Manafort’s toast, but beyond him I regard it as possible that when the dust settles we’ll have a lot of amateurish bumbling and attempted “collusion” and individual grifts and obstruction.

    But there’s a range of possibilities up to blackmailing of Trump to relieve sanctions and appoint Tillerson (which would, in a vernacular sense, be treason) and sharing of voter targeting data with Russians by Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica, which claims to be able to categorize individual voters. I don’t know what happened, but the presumption of innocence falls on the legal system, not me, and these horrible people have gone past any credible charitable construction.




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  31. Tyrell says:

    “Mueller investigation takes turn as it investigates the Bill Clinton – Loretta Lynch secret airport meeting. Hillary reported to be furious”
    You won’t see that on the maim stream news media.




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