Lots of heavy breathing about this on political Twitter this afternoon — Russia! Blackwater! Secret meetings! The Middle East! Steve Bannon! — but there’s no allegation of wrongdoing that I can see, unless you think “back channel” diplomacy by an incoming White House is per se illicit. The strangest thing about it appears to be the timing. The meeting between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and the Russian liaison was allegedly held on January 11th, just nine days before the inauguration. Why open a “back channel” when Trump would be president and able to open a front channel in just nine days?
Perhaps there are reasons.
The meeting [between Erik Prince and a Russian close to Vladimir Putin] took place around Jan. 11 — nine days before Trump’s inauguration — in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, officials said. Though the full agenda remains unclear, the UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would likely require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions…
The Seychelles meeting came after private discussions in New York involving high-ranking representatives of Trump, Moscow and the Emirates.
The White House has acknowledged that Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s original national security adviser, and Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner met with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in late November or early December in New York.
Flynn and Kushner were joined by Bannon for a separate meeting with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who made an undisclosed visit to New York later in December, according to the U.S., European and Arab officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
The White House says it knows nothing about any meeting and emphasized that Prince had no formal role in the transition. Prince’s spokesman says his meeting in the Seychelles had nothing to do with the Trump White House. In fact, WaPo offers no hard proof at all that the meeting was at Trump’s behest; it’s all circumstantial evidence, with the story’s opening sentences referring to an “apparent” effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Trump and Putin. Prince is a plausible broker for diplomacy involving the U.S. and UAE, though, as he’s Betsy DeVos’s brother, donated big bucks to the Trump campaign, and was a regular guest on Steve Bannon’s radio show. He’s also lived in the UAE since 2010 after legal trouble over Blackwater began to mount. If Team Trump needed someone trusted by both themselves and the UAE to sound out a friend of Vlad’s about diplomacy in advance of the inauguration, Prince would be a logical choice.
Let’s say it’s all true, though. What did Trump supposedly do wrong? WaPo notes that the FBI took an interest in the meeting because of its Russiagate probe and I suppose there’ll be some harrumphing about a Logan Act violation since technically Trump wasn’t president yet when it happened, but as one expert told WaPo, informal back-channel talks involving surrogates “as a tool of diplomacy is as old as the hills.” The Obama administration used them after taking office to see whether Iran was open to improving ties. If the Seychelles meeting had had a nefarious purpose related to, say, the presidential campaign, then you’d be looking at a nuclear scandal, but the alleged purpose here was virtuous — to isolate Iran diplomatically in the Middle East, an unsurprising goal of the Trump White House given the influence of Iran hawks (most notably Mattis and, previously, Mike Flynn) within the administration.
As for why Trump might have preferred a back channel, even so close to the inauguration, that’s easy — because of the Russiagate probe, any publicly visible diplomacy with Moscow would have made the accusations of collusion during the campaign even shriller than they already were. In fact, it was just one day before Prince’s meeting that BuzzFeed published the infamous “Trump dossier” compiled by a former British intel agent. Public diplomacy with Russia over Iran would have also been risky in that it might have alarmed Tehran, which might then have behaved unpredictably in Syria or in terms of its nuclear obligations to the U.S. Hot Air alum Noah Rothman points to this useful short history of how the Nixon administration used back channels successfully to conduct diplomacy with the Soviets: “When used to supplement rather than supplant traditional diplomacy, back channels may offer a protected forum free from leaks to explore points of agreement, disagreement and potential conflict.” Maybe Trump simply wanted to find out Putin’s price for cutting Tehran loose and calculated, not irrationally, that that would be best done quietly, with plausible deniability.
In fact, sources tell WaPo that Trump transition staffers were open about their ambitions to turn Russia against Iran. The problem is that the price likely would have been steep, assuming it exists at all. “There is no interest in Russia ever doing that,” claimed former Obama ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul to WaPo. “They have a long relationship with Iran. They’re allied with Iran in fighting in Syria. They sell weapons to Iran. Iran is an important strategic partner for Russia in the Middle East.” Trump has the same problem driving a wedge between Russia and Iran as he does in driving a wedge between Russia and China. Because the constituency within the United States for warmer relations with Moscow is tiny — Democrats hate the Kremlin now because of its leaking during the campaign and Republican hawks have hated the Kremlin since forever — Putin knows that warmer relations with the U.S. might not outlive the Trump administration itself. Are eight (or four!) years of better diplomacy with Washington really worth it if it leaves Russia without an ally in the Middle East or, worse, with a giant pissed-off nuclear power on its doorstep for decades? Putin’s not going to sacrifice Russia’s most important diplomatic relationships for a few years of sanctions relief.
The WaPo story makes me wonder, though: Could it be that Tulsi Gabbard was also conducting a little back-channel diplomacy for Trump when she decided to drop in on Bashar Assad in January? Gabbard denies that that had anything to do with the White House, but remember that she met with Trump at Trump Tower beforehand (a rare Democrat to do so during the transition) and is a favorite of Steve Bannon’s. If WaPo is right that Trump was interested in splitting off Russia from Iran, maybe he was also interested in hearing what it would take to bring Assad out of Iran’s orbit. I hope not, though — not because it’d be untoward to ask but because Trump’s nuts if he thinks there’s anything that could detach Assad from a country that’s been propping him up for years. And if Trump and Bannon really wanted a back channel to Assad, surely they’d choose someone less publicly visible than a congresswoman from the other party, no?