Timing is everything — and especially so in the issues surrounding alleged collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 election. A meeting between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian official in the Seychelles had been passed off as a coincidence, having nothing to do with Trump or connections to Moscow. A new witness has come forward, the Washington Post reports, to refute that and testify that the meeting was an intentional effort to set up a “back channel” to Russia.
But when did this meeting take place? That matters, at least in how it relates to Trump:
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.
“Just before the inauguration” and “January 2017” make a big difference here. It’s similar to the issue of Mike Flynn’s conversation with Sergei Kislyak in December 2016. Donald Trump had already been elected president, and the transition well underway. Incoming administrations start building relationships with Congress and foreign countries in order to be ready to take the reins immediately on the inauguration.
With that said, though, it’s easier to explain Flynn’s call to the official Russian ambassador than this event, assuming Nader’s testified as the Post reports here. Trump would have been days away from taking those reins and would not have needed a “back channel” to Moscow at all, at least not primarily. He would be able to install his own diplomatic personnel to deal directly with Russia, and in fact appointed Rex Tillerson to run the State Department, with all his personal and business contacts in Russia. Perhaps the poisonous atmosphere regarding Russia after the election would have given some value to back-channel contacts, but it would have been better to wait a few days until the inauguration to set those up — and Tillerson would have made a better candidate to create that channel than Prince.
If Prince lied about this to the FBI, he’d better prepare himself for a Flynn-like journey through the special counsel’s office. It’s not clear why Prince would have lied about this, though, just as it’s not clear why Flynn would have lied. He would have been in no legal jeopardy under the Logan Act because no one has ever been successfully prosecuted under it, and there have been several worse examples of private interference in foreign affairs. Testifying truthfully about it wouldn’t have put Trump and his team in any jeopardy, either, unless we plan to start criminalizing presidential transitions.
That may be where we’re heading, though:
Nader — and the Seychelles meeting — are also of interest to Mueller’s team as it examines whether any foreign money or assistance fueled the Trump campaign, and how Trump officials during the transition and early days of the administration communicated with foreign officials, particularly Russians.
If they’re looking for money flowing into the campaign, that may make it more interesting, but this meeting would have been a strange payoff — and Prince would make for an even odder choice to lead it. The Post’s reporting notes that Nader himself had already established connections with Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner while working for the United Arab Emirates as an advisor, and went to the White House himself after the Seychelles meeting. So what was the purpose of having Prince there? If Prince was a cutout for a secret connection to the UAE, why did Nader visit the White House directly after the Seychelles meeting?
None of this makes a lot of sense from any angle. But here’s a question we should be asking: why do we get so many leaks from this special counsel investigation? We seem to be getting a lot of reporting on what Mueller’s team is doing. Shouldn’t this be kept a little more under wraps?
Finally, we should consider a more formal structure for presidential transitions if we plan to maintain the ten-week distance from Election Day to Inauguration Day. The awkward nature of transitions leaves incoming presidents-elect with no roadmap, and the increasingly hostile and bitter nature of partisan politics leaves them vulnerable to malicious prosecution for their attempts to make themselves ready to govern in foreign affairs on Day One. Congress needs to address the ambiguity in specific ways for incoming administrations. If we want legal lines drawn, we need better lines than the Logan Act and whimsical tradition for guidance.