Prince could face charges stemming from his testimony to Congress about Seychelles meeting with Putin adviser and potential arms-trafficking violations
The Justice Department is in the late stages of deciding whether to charge businessman and Trump ally Erik Prince in an investigation into whether he lied to Congress in its Russia probe and violated U.S. export laws in his business dealings overseas, according to people familiar with the matter.
The investigation gathered steam in recent months with the cooperation of several witnesses, the people said. Potential charges against Mr. Prince, the founder of the defense contractor formerly known as Blackwater, include making false statements to Congress and violating the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the people said.
Investigators have been examining Mr. Prince’s 2017 testimony to Congress about his meeting with an adviser to Russia President Vladimir Putin, the people said. The episode was the subject of a criminal referral last April by the House Intelligence Committee, after special counsel Robert Mueller’s 2019 report appeared to contradict Mr. Prince’s testimony and described a different motivation for the trip than Mr. Prince had described to Congress.
The Justice Department told the committee in a Feb. 4 letter it would “refer” the request for an investigation “to the proper investigative agency”—though it was already looking at the matter, the people said.
The inquiry is also looking at Mr. Prince’s attempts to supply aircraft outfitted with weaponry to other countries. He made a pitch to the United Arab Emirates for such a contract in 2017, according to people familiar with the matter. It couldn’t be determined whether the pitch was successful.
A representative from the U.A.E. embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment. The FBI is examining whether Mr. Prince obtained the appropriate export licenses in that business, the people said.
An attorney for Mr. Prince, Matthew Schwartz, said: “There is nothing new here,” adding that Mr. Prince had “cooperated completely” in Mr. Mueller’s investigation. “Erik Prince’s House testimony has been public for more than a year,” Mr. Schwartz added.
After Mr. Trump’s 2016 election, Mr. Prince met in the Seychelles with Kirill Dmitriev, who runs Russia’s sovereign-wealth fund and has described himself as a close adviser to Mr. Putin.
Speaking to lawmakers in November 2017, Mr. Prince described the meeting as a brief, unplanned encounter at a hotel bar while he was in the Indian Ocean archipelago on other business.
Mr. Prince said then that he went to the Seychelles to meet with potential customers from the U.A.E. “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,” Mr. Prince said at the time.
But Mr. Mueller’s team in its report described the episode unfolding differently.
Mr. Nader suggested that, in light of Mr. Prince’s relationship with transition team officials, the two could meet, the report said. Mr. Prince didn’t have a formal role with the Trump campaign but talked to campaign chairman Steve Bannon and sent him unsolicited policy papers, according to his congressional testimony.
Mr. Prince is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy Devos.
Mr. Nader also faces a separate, unresolved federal criminal case that accuses him of conspiring to provide more than $3.5 million in illegal campaign contributions to political entities supporting Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. He has pleaded not guilty in that case.
Mr. Prince has a long history in the Middle East and did business with the United Arab Emirates before 2011, which he described in his congressional testimony as consulting on “how to make the country safer.”
One of Mr. Prince’s previous companies, Academi LLC, previously called Blackwater Worldwide, entered into a deferred prosecution agreement in 2012 to resolve criminal charges that it violated export laws by not obtaining appropriate licenses for services that included providing ammunition and body armor to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as military training to Canada. The firm had also submitted a proposal to provide security services to Sudan for which it didn’t get an export license, which was required in part because the proposal included technical data related to the intended work.
The company was renamed after Blackwater security guards were involved in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad that resulted in the death of more than a dozen unarmed Iraqi civilians. One of the guards, Nicholas Slatten, was sentenced to life in prison last year after he was convicted of murdering the driver of a stopped car.
Mr. Prince has faced questions before about his work brokering the sale of aircraft outfitted with military capabilities. In 2015, the law firm King & Spalding conducted an investigation for security firm Frontier Services Group, where Mr. Prince was chairman of the board, and prepared a report, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. It found Mr. Prince might have tried to broker such a sale without the appropriate license.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray supervised the team of attorneys that made the finding, which was first reported by news website The Intercept in 2018.
Many of the tales of controversy to emerge from the Trump administration have been abstract, or complicated, or murky. Whenever anyone warns about destruction of “norms,” the conversation quickly becomes speculative—the harms are theoretical, vague, and in the future.
This makes new Washington Post reporting about President Donald Trump’s border wall especially valuable. The Post writes about how Trump has repeatedly pressured the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security to award a contract for building a wall at the southern U.S. border to a North Dakota company headed by a leading Republican donor.
The story demonstrates the shortcomings of Trump’s attempt to bring private-sector techniques into government. It shows his tendency toward cronyism, his failures as a negotiator, and the ease with which a fairly primitive attention campaign can sway him. At heart, though, what it really exemplifies is Trump’s insistence on placing performative gestures over actual efficacy. And it is a concrete example—almost literally—of how the president’s violations of norms weaken the country and waste taxpayer money.
The Post reports:
In phone calls, White House meetings and conversations aboard Air Force One during the past several months, Trump has aggressively pushed Dickinson, N.D.-based Fisher Industries to Department of Homeland Security leaders and Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the commanding general of the Army Corps, according to the administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions.
It may be a not-very-subtle sign of the frustration in the Army that the news leaked to the Post the same day that Semonite was called to the White House and Trump once again pressed him.*
The House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday made a criminal referral to the Justice Department for Erik Prince, the billionaire founder of the private military contractor Blackwater and an ally of President Trump, accusing him of “knowingly and willfully” making false statements to Congress.
Prince’s statements “impaired the Committee’s understanding of Russia’s attempts to contact and influence the incoming Trump Administration,” Schiff wrote in his referral letter to Attorney General William P. Barr, describing six alleged instances in which Prince misled the panel about his January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles with a Russian banker tied to the Kremlin — and how much the Trump transition team knew about it.
“The evidence is so weighty that the Justice Department needs to consider this,” Schiff said during a Washington Post Live event earlier Tuesday, announcing his intention to make the referral later in the day.
Democratic lawmakers have long suspected that Prince lied to them during his November 2017 interview before the House Intelligence Commitee, when he described his Seychelles meeting with Russian financier Kirill Dmitriev as a chance encounter, instead of one organized at the behest of the incoming administration. Their suspicions hardened after they read special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s depiction of the Seychelles meeting, which differed in several key respects with Prince’s sworn testimony.
Mueller’s team also learned that Prince had been in touch with Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, before the meeting and from the Seychelles, but it was unable to unearth the content those conversations, as the messages had disappeared from their devices, according to Mueller’s report.
“We know from the Mueller report that was not a chance meeting. . . . We know there were communications after he returned,” Schiff said during The Post event. “In very material ways I think the evidence strongly suggests that he willingly misled our committee, and the Justice Department needs to consider whether there’s a prosecutable case.”
The White House, the Justice Department and the Trump Organization had no immediate response to Schiff’s comments.
In a statement, a lawyer for Prince said there “is no new evidence here.” Matthew L. Schwartz said: “Erik Prince’s House testimony has been public for months, including at all times that Mr. Prince met with the Special Counsel’s Office. Mr. Prince cooperated completely with the Special Counsel’s investigation, as its report demonstrates. There is nothing new here for the Department of Justice to consider, nor is there any reason to question the Special Counsel’s decision to credit Mr. Prince and rely on him in drafting its report.”
Schiff noted Tuesday that some of the information Prince gave investigators was presented during proffer sessions. He speculated that if Prince told Mueller’s team what he knew “under the condition it not be used against him, then being able to prove” that he lied to lawmakers “might be problematic.”
Details in Mueller’s report have solidified many Democrats’ concerns that Trump Jr. lied to them about the details surrounding the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower that he and others from the Trump campaign held with a Russian lawyer promising “dirt” on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The report also sparked new concerns that Kushner misled lawmakers about the pre-inauguration contacts his business associate, Rick Gerson, had with Dmitriev, the banker who met with Prince in the Seychelles.
But Democrats are reluctant to levy official accusations against Kushner and Trump Jr. until they are able to view the redacted information in Mueller’s report, as well as the transcripts of the special counsel’s witness interviews.
In a separate interview at The Washington Post Live event, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said Republicans are also considering referring some congressional witnesses to the Justice Department for possibly lying to Congress.
Meadows said the GOP is looking at two or three people. He declined to name them but suggested at least one is connected to Fusion GPS, the firm behind a controversial dossier alleging Trump had personal and financial ties to Russia.
Most important is the claim that he maintained a “covert relationship with Russia,” and that in August 2016 Cohen made a secret visit to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, where he reportedly met with senior Kremlin officials. According to the dossier, whose allegations are so far unproven, the Prague meeting was facilitated by Konstantin Kosachev, who heads the Russian Duma’s foreign-relations committee and who may have attended the meeting in person.
Most explosively, the dossier alleges that Cohen’s meeting in Prague in that late summer of 2016 included “secret discussions with Kremlin representatives and associated operators/hackers,” and that “the agenda comprised questions on how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the CLINTON campaign and various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow’s secret liaison with the TRUMP team more generally.”
.. Sourced to a “Kremlin adviser,” the dossier report said that the meeting was originally planned for Moscow but was “shifted to what was considered an operationally ‘soft’ EU country when it was judged too compromising for him to travel to the Russian capital.” And it adds that Cohen’s wife “is of Russian descent and her father [is] a leading property developer in Moscow.” (Michael Cohen’s wife, Laura, is a Ukrainian of Russian descent, according to the dossier; his brother, Bryan, is also married to a Ukrainian; and, like Manafort, the Cohen family has business ties to Ukraine.)
.. So far, the report that Cohen met with Russians in Prague is unverified. Cohen has vigorously denied it, and he’s shown his passport, which lacks a Czech entry stamp, to reporters. However, according to a report by McClatchy, citing “two [unnamed] sources familiar with the matter,” Mueller “has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign.” The McClatchy report, by Peter Stone and Greg Gordon, two veteran investigative journalists, didn’t say whether Cohen met with Kosachev, but it did say that Mueller’s investigators unearthed the fact that Cohen traveled to Prague via Germany, meaning that his passport would not have needed a stamp from the Czech Republic.
.. Third, Cohen was involved in the still mostly unexplained “Ukraine peace plan” that reportedly ended up on the desk of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, in February 2017 just before Flynn was forced to resign over his own contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. The plan, organized outside regular diplomatic channels, was concocted by a Ukrainian politician, Andrii Artemenko, reportedly at the behest of top aides to President Putin. The plan, which would have resulted in eliminating or easing Western sanctions on Russia over its annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, was cooked up in conjunction with Cohen and Sater. According to the New York Times report, Sater delivered the written plan to Cohen “in a sealed envelope,” and Cohen placed it in Flynn’s office.
.. Fourth, as The Wall Street Journal revealed in a stunning exposé, Cohen was the attorney who arranged a $1.6 million payoff to quiet a scandal involving an affair between Elliott Broidy, a top Republican Party fundraising official, and a Playboy Playmate. But Broidy has a part to play in the Russia scandal, too: Along with an operative named George Nader, who was picked up by federal agents at an airport and who’s now cooperating with Mueller’s office, Broidy was a principal in a scheme to boost US support for the United Arab Emirates over Qatar, in a tangled dispute among Arab nations of the Persian Gulf. Nader is an adviser to the UAE, and as the Times recently reported, Nader maintains business ties to Russia, including working on arms deals.
.. Meanwhile, the Times reported, Broidy “owns a private security company with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with the United Arab Emirates, and he extolled to Mr. Trump a paramilitary force that his company was developing for the country.” And it was Nader who arranged the secret meeting between Erik Prince, top UAE officials, and a Russian wheeler-dealer named Kirill Dmitriev, a meeting that Mueller is now investigating because it was apparently aimed at setting up some sort of back-channel links between Moscow and the incoming administration in Washington.