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Could Erik Prince be in perjury trouble?

On April 30, House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff said the committee will seek a criminal referral to the Justice Department regarding Erik Prince. (Video: The Washington Post)
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House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said Tuesday that he would make a criminal referral to the Justice Department alleging that Trump associate Erik Prince may have committed perjury in his congressional testimony.

The move wasn’t altogether unexpected, given that Prince’s testimony appears inconsistent with the findings of the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. But how compelling might a potential perjury case be? And how likely is DOJ to do anything about it?

At issue are Prince’s comments about a meeting with a Russian banker in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. In 2017, The Washington Post reported that Prince, who founded the security firm Blackwater, traveled there during the transition between Trump’s election and his inauguration to discuss setting up a back channel between Russia and the Trump team.

Prince denied the report both publicly and later in a combative, closed-door appearance in front of the House Intelligence Committee. Prince also suggested it was a brief, unplanned encounter with the banker, Kirill Dmitriev, who is allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that he wasn’t familiar with him. The Washington Post first reported in March 2018 that Mueller’s findings contradicted Prince’s account.

Prince has made a number of other claims in his public comments that went further than his testimony. But for the purposes of perjury, it’s only his testimony that matters. Let’s compare what he said under oath to what the Mueller report says.

A chance encounter?

Prince: “After the meeting, they mentioned a guy I should meet who was also in town to see them, a Kirill Dmitriev from Russia, who ran some sort of hedge fund.”

Mueller: The report indicates this was much more of a planned meeting than Prince suggested, and that he was made familiar with Dmitriev beforehand. Prince spoke and emailed with an intermediary, George Nader, about Dmitriev before booking the trip.

“Nader and Prince discussed Dmitriev. Nader informed Prince that the Russians were looking to build a link with the incoming Trump Administration. [REDACTED] he told Prince that Dmitriev had been pushing Nader to introduce him to someone from the incoming Administration. [REDACTED] Nader suggested, in light of Prince’s relationship with Transition Team officials, that Prince and Dmitriev meet to discuss issues of mutual concern. [REDACTED] Prince told Nader that he needed to think further about it and to check with Transition Team officials.”

After the meeting, Nader sent Prince a Wikipedia entry on Dmitriev. The next day, Nader forwarded emails from Dmitriev to Prince. Prince opened attachments from the emails while he was in Trump Tower for a three-hour period. He eventually booked his ticket for the Seychelles on Jan. 7, four days after seeing Nader about the prospective meeting.

Prince clearly played down the provenance of the meeting and his familiarity with Dmitriev. But Prince doesn’t specifically say that it wasn’t planned beforehand or that he didn’t know who Dmitriev was, as he has stated more plainly in his public comments. Thus, proving what he said was a lie could be difficult.

A brief meeting — or two?

Prince: “The meeting ended after a maximum of 30 minutes. I’ve had no communications or dealings with him or any of his colleagues before or after that encounter last January.” He reinforced later that 30 minutes was the “maximum. It was probably more like 20 minutes.”

At another point, he said he believed there was only one meeting with Dmitriev on the trip:

SCHIFF: So the only two meetings you had while you were there were an hour-long meeting with the [United Arab Emirates] prince and his delegation and an approximately half-an-hour meeting in the bar with Mr. Dmitriev.
PRINCE: I think that’s the order of it, but I’m not -- yeah. Something like that.

Mueller: Prince told Mueller in May 2018 that the meeting was more like 30-to-45 minutes. What’s more, there was an impromptu second meeting, involving both Nader and Dmitriev. “At the second meeting, Prince told Dmitriev that the United States could not accept Russian involvement in Libya because it would make the situation there much worse,” the Mueller report states.

The length of the initial meeting might be a smaller point, but Prince clearly indicated that they had interacted only once. He talked about the 20-to-30-minute meeting and then said there were “no communications or dealings with him or any of his colleagues before or after that encounter,” according to the Mueller report. A second meeting with Dmitriev would seem to be another communication. Prince might argue that he meant the entire Seychelles trip as an “encounter,” but he never mentions the second meeting in his congressional testimony.

Mueller does confirm his team “did not identify evidence of any further communication between Prince and Dmitriev after their meetings in the Seychelles.”

Not representing the Trump campaign?


REP. FRANCIS ROONEY (R-FLA.): Was the point of that meeting for you to represent the Trump campaign or Mr. Trump in any way?

Mueller: See above. Nader made clear to Prince that Dmitriev was interested in the meeting because Prince was close to the Trump team. Prince even said he would check with officials on the Trump transition team about the prospective meeting. The report also says that “Prince acknowledged that it was fair for Nader to think that Prince would pass information on to the Transition Team.”

Prince may not have been there as an official member of Trump’s transition team or incoming government, but Rooney’s question was about whether he was representing Trump “in any way.” It seems that was how the meeting was set up and understood.

No back channel talks?


SCHIFF: Did you discuss establishing a channel of communications with his country that would be discreet?
SCHIFF: Did you discuss having any channel of communications between the United States and Russia?

Mueller: Mueller’s report describes other efforts to create some kind of back channel between the Trump team and Russia, but it doesn’t directly describe one here. Instead, it refers several times to Prince and Dmitriev discussing U.S.-Russia relations and issues of common interest.

That said, there are significant redactions in these sections for information obtained via grand jury.

Didn’t talk to Trump team about it?


SCHIFF: Did you ever tell anyone with The Trump Organization or transition team that you had had a meeting with Mr. Dmitriev?
PRINCE: No, I did not.

Mueller: “Prince said that he met [President Trump’s then-chief strategist Stephen K.] Bannon at Bannon’s home after returning to the United States in mid-January and briefed him about several topics, including his meeting with Dmitriev. . . . Prince also believed he provided Bannon with Dmitriev’s contact information. According to Prince, Bannon instructed Prince not to follow up with Dmitriev, and Prince had the impression that the issue was not a priority for Bannon.”

These seems pretty cut-and-dried. Perhaps Prince’s defense would be that he thought the question was about whether he had discussed his meeting with Dmitriev before it happened. But that would be curious, given that he also suggested it was an unplanned, chance encounter.

(Bannon, for what it’s worth, said he never discussed any of this with Prince.)

What it means

It’s worth noting that the bar for perjury is high and that Mueller’s investigation concluded without indicting Prince.

But former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter said that that doesn’t necessarily mean Mueller didn’t think there was a case to be made. He noted that Prince’s alleged perjury came in congressional testimony and not to Mueller’s team. “This may be an example of something Mueller felt others (e.g. Congress) should pursue if they want to, like impeachment,” Cotter said in an email. “My read of the report suggests just that.”

Schiff also acknowledged Tuesday that Prince spoke with Mueller under the terms of an unspecified proffer agreement, which sometimes insulates people from being charged based upon their statements. (This wouldn’t apply to false statements in previous congressional testimony, but it would mean Prince’s statements to Mueller couldn’t be used to make the case.)

But even if there is a case to be made, that doesn’t mean it will be. Attorney General William P. Barr has suggested it’s time to turn the page on the Mueller probe, which bodes well for Prince.

If a case of perjury was brought, it would be one of the highest-profile prosecution cases to come out of the Mueller probe. Prince is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and a controversial figure dating back to the early days of the Iraq War.