russia probe

What We Know About Efforts to Set Up a Trump-Russia Back Channel

Kushner with Flynn at the White House, shortly before he was fired for lying about meetings with Kislyak. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Despite their insistence that there was “no collusion” with the Kremlin, Trump associates had plenty of secretive interactions with Russians. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has evidence that a meeting in the Seychelles days before Donald Trump’s inauguration was an effort to set up a back channel between the Kremlin and the incoming administration. As you may recall, Jared Kushner previously admitted that he discussed the possibility of communicating privately with Moscow during the transition — though he said his goals were innocent, and the link was never established.

The true nature and purpose of these efforts remain a mystery, but recent reports have shed more light on the push establish a link between Team Trump and the Russians in the months before the president was sworn in. Here’s what we know so far.

Kushner, Flynn, and Kislyak Discuss Back Channel

• There were several calls between Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., and Trump campaign officials Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn prior to Election Day, according to Reuters. In a statement before his closed-door appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee in July, Kushner said he had no recollection of these calls. Kushner initially failed to list dozens of contacts with foreign officials on his security-clearance form, and was recently stripped of his temporary top-secret clearance.

• Kushner and Flynn secretly met with Kislyak in Trump Tower on December 1, 2016. Last spring the Washington Post reported that Kushner proposed using Russian diplomatic facilities in the U.S. to establish a back channel for communication between the Trump transition and the Russian government. U.S. intelligence intercepted Kislyak describing the request to his superiors.

Kushner told Congress that Kislyak raised the idea, saying he wanted to convey information from his “generals” about the Syrian civil war, but needed a secure line. Kushner said he suggested going through the Russian embassy, but nothing came of it:

I believed developing a thoughtful approach on Syria was a very high priority given the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and I asked if they had an existing communications channel at his embassy we could use where they would be comfortable transmitting the information they wanted to relay to General Flynn. The Ambassador said that would not be possible and so we all agreed that we would receive this information after the Inauguration.

• On December 1, Kushner, Flynn, and Kislyak also talked about setting up a meeting between a Trump associate and a Russian contact, according to the Post:

In addition to their discussion about setting up the communications channel, Kushner, Flynn and Kislyak also talked about arranging a meeting between a representative of Trump and a “Russian contact” in a third country whose name was not identified, according to the anonymous letter.

• Flynn resigned as Trump’s national-security adviser on February 13, 2017, saying he gave fellow administration officials “incomplete information” on his discussions with Kislyak regarding sanctions. On December 1, 2017, he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those discussions during the transition, and he’s now working with Mueller.

Trump welcomes Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan to the White House on May 15, 2017. Photo: Xinhua News Agency/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Secret Trump Tower Meeting With Emirates Leader

• Kushner and Flynn, along with Steve Bannon, had another secret Trump Tower meeting with the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates on December 15, 2016. In a breach of protocol, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan did not notify the Obama administration about the meeting, and U.S. officials only learned about the visit when his name was spotted on a flight manifest.

• This week we learned that George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman who advises Zayed and has ties to various Trump aides, was present at the Trump Tower meeting. He is reportedly cooperating with Mueller and testified before a grand jury last week.

• Both Trump and the UAE were interested in finding a way to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran. In April 2017, the Post reported that Zayed and his brother sought to help establish a back channel between Trump and Putin, and were approached by Trump associate Erik Prince:

Following the New York meeting between the Emiratis and Trump aides, Zayed was approached by Prince, who said he was authorized to act as an unofficial surrogate for the president-elect, according to the officials. He wanted Zayed to set up a meeting with a Putin associate. Zayed agreed and proposed the Seychelles as the meeting place because of the privacy it would afford both sides. “He wanted to be helpful,” one official said of Zayed.

Erik Prince, who doesn’t need much of a reason to hop on a plane to the Seychelles. Photo: Chuck Kennedy/TNS via Getty Images

The Seychelles Meeting

• Erik Prince, founder of the security firm Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, had no official role in the Trump transition, but he reportedly served as an informal adviser, “providing advice to Trump’s inner circle, including his top national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn,” according to Bloomberg. He told Congress that he visited Trump Tower twice during the transition.

• On January 11, 2017, nine days before Trump’s inauguration, Prince met with Kirill Dmitriev, who runs a Kremlin-controlled wealth fund, in the Seychelles. Nader, who has known Prince for years, was reportedly at the meeting as well.

• While Mueller is said to have evidence that the purpose of the meeting was to establish a back channel between the Trump team and Russia, Prince denied that in his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee in November.

• Prince claimed he flew to the Seychelles because he received a one-line invitation from Zayed’s scheduler, which said, “His Highness would like to see you if you can come out to the Seychelles.” Prince said he believed this meant they had a business proposal, but nothing specific came up during his hour-long meeting with Zayed and his associates.

Prince testified that toward the end of the meeting, the Emiratis suggested that he meet with Dmitriev, who happened to be at the hotel.

“At the end, one of the entourage says, ‘Hey, by the way, there’s this Russian guy that we’ve dealt with in the past. He’s here also to see someone from the Emirati delegation. And you should meet him, he’d be an interesting guy for you to know, since you’re doing a lot in the oil and gas and mineral space,’” Prince testified.

• Prince said he chatted with Dmitriev for about 30 minutes, discussing business and Russia’s hopes for reestablishing normal trade relations with the U.S. “I remember telling him that if Franklin Roosevelt could work with Joseph Stalin to defeat Nazi fascism, then certainly Donald Trump could work with Vladi­mir Putin to defeat Islamic fascism,” Prince said.

Unanswered Questions

• Did Prince lie about the Seychelles meeting while testifying before Congress?

“During his Russia investigation interview, Mr. Prince was asked directly by me and Mr. Schiff who he met with while he was in the Seychelles,” Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell told CNN. “He never gave the name George Nader. If he met with George Nader, he lied under oath.”

Republicans dismissed their Democratic colleagues’ concerns, and are unlikely to pursue the matter.

• If Kushner was seeking a back channel to Moscow, was the Seychelles meeting the result of that effort, or part of a separate push to forge a link to the Kremlin?

• Why would Trump associates continue pursuing a back channel nine days before the inauguration? If their aim was to pressure Russia into distancing itself from Iran, likely in return for sanctions relief, they could have waited until after January 20 and used official channels.

• Mueller’s team is also said to be looking into whether foreign money was funneled into Trump’s political efforts in an attempt to buy influence. Was the secrecy surrounding various contacts with Russia part of a stunningly inept attempt to keep their discussions from the outgoing Obama administration, or the result of something far more nefarious?

The Push for a Trump-Russia Back Channel: What We Know