If Robert Mueller has as much interest in Erik Prince’s Sechelles meetings as ABC News reports, then perhaps there’s something afoot, but … it’s tough to see what it is. The special counsel has reportedly circled back to the Blackwater CEO’s contact with Putin crony Kirill Dmitriev, which took place the week before Donald Trump’s inauguration. That alone makes Mueller’s interest in this a bit odd, let alone the reported source for his curiosity:
Special Counsel Robert Mueller has obtained evidence that calls into question Congressional testimony given by Trump supporter and Blackwater founder Erik Prince last year, when he described a meeting in Seychelles with a Russian financier close to Vladimir Putin as a casual chance encounter “over a beer,” sources tell ABC News.
Well-connected Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, a key witness given limited immunity by Mueller, has been interviewed seven times by prosecutors on a wide range of subjects. He told investigators that he set up a meeting in the Seychelles between Prince and Russian sovereign wealth fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev, mere days before Trump was inaugurated, sources familiar with the investigation said this week.
Nader has submitted to three interviews with special counsel investigators and four appearances before a federal grand jury in Washington since agents stopped him at Dulles International Airport in January, served him with a grand jury subpoena and seized his electronic devices, including his cell phone. Documents obtained by Mueller suggest that before and after Prince met Nader in New York a week before the trip to the Seychelles, Nader shared information with Prince about Dmitriev, sources familiar with the investigation told ABC News, which appears to be inconsistent with Prince’s sworn testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives investigative panel.
Mueller’s a smart investigator, and we don’t know the scope or findings of the probe thus far, but it’s worth reminding people of its purpose. Mueller was appointed by Rod Rosenstein to pick up the pieces of the FBI and Department of Justice investigation into possible collusion between Russian intelligence and US political campaigns during the 2016 election.
Why is that important? The contact between Prince and Dmitriev took place in January 2017, two months after the election. Prince has denied that he intended to meet with Dmitriev as the purpose of the trip, and denied that he was working on behalf of Trump to set up a “back channel” to Moscow. Even if he had been doing so, though, it wouldn’t have been illegal or inappropriate. Trump was already the president-elect and had been working the transition for two months at that point. There is no law preventing a president-elect from trying to set up unofficial diplomatic connections; in fact, we expect presidents-elect to be ready to govern on Day One.
Furthermore, the source for this meeting is George Nader, a man whose history doesn’t get much mention in the video report but which ABC does cover in its story:
His background and credibility have come under attack as his name appeared in recent headlines. He has been arrested twice in the U.S., first in 1984 and again 1991, and convicted once, according to court records unsealed in March, for possession of pornographic videos featuring underage boys. He also reportedly served prison time in the Czech Republic in 2003 for similar crimes.
Nader’s lawyers at powerhouse firm Latham & Watkins, which includes former Obama White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, have said unnamed individuals are dredging up the old criminal cases to discredit him as an important witness for Mueller. They declined to comment to ABC News on Nader’s interactions with the special counsel and Nader himself has refused to speak about the Russia probe.
What’s remarkable about Nader is that he continued to have access to top US officials despite his record, which had been sealed until last month. Nader helped Trump administration officials prepare for his visit to Saudi Arabia last year, even posing with the president for a picture, and had “easy access to the White House under Presidents Reagan, both Bushes and Clinton.” It seems that the vetting process has been dysfunctional for some time at the White House, or that they viewed Nader as too valuable to care.
Mueller may have decided the same thing, in part because Nader is reportedly supplying documents that corroborate his story and contradict Prince. If Prince lied to Congress, that’s more of an issue for Capitol Hill rather than a special counsel, however. Perhaps Mueller wants to use the leverage of potential perjury charges to pull the Prince thread to see what unravels. However, it’s difficult to see what this has to do with Mueller’s original mandate — at least at this point. If he has to chase Prince over a January 2017 meeting in order to pursue a collusion hypothesis in 2016, then maybe Mueller doesn’t have much on the latter after all.