Nine days before Donald Trump took the oath of office, Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of the private military contractor Blackwater and a Trump ally, met in the Seychelles islands with a Russian financier close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prince later told congressional officials examining Russia’s interference in the presidential election that the meeting happened by chance and was not taken at the behest of the incoming administration — testimony that congressional Democrats now think was false.
Prince told special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators a version of the Seychelles meeting that is at odds in several key respects with his sworn testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in November 2017.
As lawmakers absorb the Mueller report and plan their next steps, congressional officials said they are considering whether the discrepancies are egregious enough to refer the matter to the Justice Department to pursue possible perjury charges against Prince. The investigators spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their plans.
Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election provides new details about Prince’s trip to the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, which was included in the special counsel’s examination of contacts between Trump associates and Kremlin emissaries.
Mueller describes Trump’s transition to office, a time when he and his advisers were eager to improve relations with Russia and when Putin directed wealthy Russian businessmen to make contacts with Trump’s inner circle on the Kremlin’s behalf.
Prince’s meeting in the Seychelles with Kirill Dmitriev, the chief executive of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, drew scrutiny from FBI investigators as part of their inquiry into Russia’s election interference, and some U.S. officials saw it as an attempt by the Trump team to set up back-channel communications with Russia.
Through a spokesman, Prince declined to comment for this article. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Prince spoke to Mueller’s team at least twice, in April and May 2018, under a proffer agreement, according to the special counsel’s report. That suggests he may have believed he could be charged with crimes. A proffer usually allows a witness to testify to certain facts with the understanding that his statements can’t be used against him by the prosecutor questioning him.
The proffer would not, however, shield him from legal jeopardy for separate statements to Congress if they were found to be false.
Prince told lawmakers that the meeting with Dmitriev happened by chance, after associates from the United Arab Emirates suggested that he meet “an interesting guy from Russia” who was in the Seychelles and worked in the commodity business.
But Mueller found that Prince arranged the meeting in advance with George Nader, an adviser to the UAE who did business with Dmitriev. Nader had told Prince that the Russians wanted to forge new alliances with the administration and that Dmitriev had asked him for help, Mueller found.
Prince told Congress that he was not acting as a representative for the Trump transition team or the campaign when he met with Dmitriev.
That also appears to be false.
“According to Nader, Prince had led him to believe that [Trump adviser Stephen K.] Bannon was aware of Prince’s upcoming meeting with Dmitriev, and Prince acknowledged that it was fair for Nader to think that Prince would pass information on to the Transition Team,” Mueller wrote.
In his interview with Mueller’s investigators, Prince said he told Dmitriev he provided policy papers to Bannon. Nader, trying to entice Dmitriev to take the meeting, “assured him that Prince wielded influence with the incoming Administration,” Mueller wrote.
Nader told Dmitriev, “This guy [Prince] is designated by Steve [Bannon] to meet you!” Mueller reported. “I know him and he is very very well connected and trusted by the New Team.”
Prince did have access to Trump’s inner circle. “After the election, Prince frequently visited transition offices at Trump Tower,” mainly to meet with aides including Bannon and occasionally Michael Flynn, the incoming national security adviser. They discussed foreign policy matters and Prince’s suggestions for who should get key national security positions, Mueller found.
Prince also told Congress that he met only once with Dmitriev. In fact, they met twice, first in Nader’s villa at the Four Seasons Resort for about 30 to 45 minutes, Mueller found. Prince didn’t disclose that initial meeting to Congress.
At the meeting, “Prince described the eight years of the Obama Administration in negative terms, and stated that he was looking forward to a new era of cooperation and conflict resolution,” Mueller found, another indication that Prince was acting in a political capacity.
There were no plans for the two to meet again at that time. But after Prince returned to his room, he learned that a Russian aircraft carrier was heading to Libya. Prince called Nader and asked to see Dmitriev again, and they met in a restaurant on the resort property.
Nader told investigators that Prince had checked in with his associates in the United States and wanted to convey that any Russian action in Libya was “off the table,” indicating that it would impede Washington and Moscow’s attempts to improve relations.
Ultimately, Dmitriev was disappointed with the meetings, having hoped to meet someone with more authority in the new administration who could help outline a new bilateral strategy, Mueller found. Dmitriev also told Nader that Prince’s comments about Libya were insulting.
Through UAE contacts, Dmitriev separately arranged an introduction in November 2016 to Rick Gerson, a hedge fund manager and friend of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Over the next two months, Dmitriev and Gerson worked on a proposal to improve relations between the United States and Russia, an initiative that Dmitriev implied had Putin’s blessing, Mueller found. Gerson gave the proposal to Kushner before the inauguration, and Kushner passed copies to Bannon and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Mueller found.
Questions remain about Prince’s meeting with Dmitriev in the Seychelles. Significant portions of the report covering the encounter are redacted because they contain grand jury material. (Nader is known to have testified before the grand jury.)
Prince also told Mueller’s team that he discussed the meeting with Bannon at his home. According to Prince, Bannon seemed uninterested and told him not to follow up with Dmitriev.
But Bannon told Mueller’s team that he never talked with Prince about any meeting with the Russian financier.
“Bannon also stated that had Prince mentioned such a meeting, Bannon would have remembered it, and Bannon would have objected to such a meeting having taken place,” Mueller wrote.
Mueller had obtained phone company records showing that Bannon and Prince exchanged “dozens of messages” during the relevant time period, including two that Prince sent to Bannon from the Seychelles within hours of meeting Dmitriev. But investigators found that the messages were no longer on the phones of Bannon and Prince.
Prince denied deleting text messages from his phone; Bannon said he couldn’t explain the absence of any messages.