Who is Erik Prince?
Erik Prince, the latest Trump associate in the spotlight of the Russia investigations, wears many hats.
He is an international traveler, a wealthy businessman with high-profile contacts, a former Navy SEAL with overseas experience and founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Prince grew closer to Donald Trump’s orbit. During the transition, he attended a controversial meeting with a Russian banker in the Seychelles, an island chain in the Indian Ocean, that has become the subject of scrutiny for Russia investigators back home.
The investigators are sure to pry for details about Prince’s links to Trump’s team and the purpose of the Seychelles meeting. Here is a summary of his background and his role in the investigations.
Ties to the Trump team
Prince never officially worked for the Trump campaign, transition or administration. But he was a prominent Trump supporter during the campaign, spent time around senior transition officials and has continued informally advising the Trump White House on some major foreign policy decisions.
CNN reported that Prince met with Trump and Gen. Michael Flynn during the campaign. He also gave $250,000 to pro-Trump efforts during the campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.
“I supported him monetarily,” Prince told lawmakers in November about his ties to the campaign. “I attended some fundraisers. I wrote some papers on different foreign policy positions and, you know, kicked them up into the adviser-sphere on what should be done on Middle Eastern or African counterterrorism issues.”
During the transition, Prince met with members of Trump’s incoming national security team and boasted to friends about his influence in the Trump orbit, CNN has reported. Prince was also spotted on a train discussing policy with soon-to-be White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and someone who joined the National Security Council, according to Bloomberg. Around that same time, Trump appointed Prince’s older sister, Betsy DeVos, to lead the Department of Education.
Prince was recruited by then-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, last summer to help devise a new Afghanistan strategy, according to The New York Times. He proposed replacing some US troops with private military contractors — like the fighters employed by his former company, Blackwater, now known as Academi. His ideas were met with heavy skepticism at the Pentagon and Trump did not embrace the plan.
Rendezvous in the Seychelles
Prince is one of at least 12 Trump associates who had contacts with Russians during the campaign or transition. His role in the Russia investigation centers on the secret meeting in the Seychelles in January 2017, with a Russian banker tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Seychelles meeting was brokered by diplomats from the United Arab Emirates, weeks after an Emirati delegation met in New York with senior members of Trump’s team, including Flynn, Bannon and Kushner. Middle East specialist George Nader was present in New York and the Seychelles as well, but it is unclear if he participated in the meeting at the hotel bar with Prince and the Russian.
News of Prince’s activities in the Seychelles broke in April 2017 with a report from The Washington Post, which claimed that Prince was there as an informal envoy of the incoming administration. Prince has said in TV interviews and Capitol Hill testimony that he was there as a private citizen, nothing more.
It was several months before the identity of the Russian was revealed. The man, Kirill Dmitriev, is the chief executive of the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund and is considered a Putin ally. The state-run investment fund is under US sanctions as a consequence of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that the purpose of the meeting was to connect Prince with the Russian banker. Prince repeatedly described his meeting as a chance encounter that was made possible because everyone was conveniently in the same hotel at the same time.
Role in the Russia investigation
Prince’s role in the investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election appears to be growing.
CNN reported this week that Nader is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. As someone who was present at the New York and Seychelles meetings, Nader can provide Mueller’s team of seasoned prosecutors with firsthand descriptions of what happened, who was there and what was discussed.
Bannon has also met at least twice with Mueller’s investigators for private interviews. Bannon attended the New York meeting, and later mentioned it to Prince, according to Prince’s testimony to lawmakers in November. Lawmakers asked Prince if he spoke with Bannon about arranging the Seychelles meeting. Prince denied that but said he couldn’t remember when he’d spoken to Bannon or where their conversation took place.
Prince sat for a contentious interview in November 2017 with the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own investigation of Russian meddling but has also been plagued by partisan infighting.
Democrats on the committee say Prince might have misled the panel in his testimony because he failed to mention Nader’s presence at the Seychelles meeting. Prince was asked if anyone from his company or any other associates were there, and he said no. But Prince has worked with Nader in the past, at one point hiring him as a consultant to help with business opportunities in Iraq. Prince said in a 2010 deposition that his private security company “retained” Nader “for a while” to secure contracts with the Iraqi government. But Nader “pretty much worked on his own” and little came from the arrangement, Prince said at the time.
Ally of Russia-friendly congressman
For much of Prince’s career, he worked with associates and governments in the Middle East. But he has had some overlap with Russia-friendly figures over the years.
He was an intern in the 1990s for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the California Republican who is one of the most Russia-friendly members of Congress. Rohrabacher’s views on WikiLeaks and economic sanctions are more in line with the Kremlin’s positions than the prevailing consensus in Washington.
Rohrabacher and Prince have remained allies. Prince is slated to hold a private fundraiser for Rohrabacher’s re-election campaign at his Virginia home this month, CNN has learned.
In the months before the 2016 election, Prince regularly went on Bannon’s radio show to promote Trump’s candidacy and occasionally spread conspiracy theories about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Bannon hosted the radio program, “Breitbart News Daily,” before joining the Trump campaign.
“John Podesta’s emails, I can assure you, did not come from the Russians,” Prince said in October 2016, referring to Clinton’s campaign chairman, whose personal emails were released by WikiLeaks. “This idea that the left, and even the administration, even some in the intelligence community, are now claiming it’s all the Russians is entirely too cute and very, very thin on any kind of fact or legitimacy.”
The US intelligence community later announced that Russia was responsible for the Podesta hacks and had transferred the information to WikiLeaks as part of its plan to interfere in the election. This belief has since been reaffirmed by the leaders appointed by Trump to head the FBI and CIA.