WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller has gathered evidence that a secret meeting in the 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.
Nader began cooperating with Mueller after he arrived at Dulles Airport in mid-January and was stopped, served with a subpoena and questioned by the FBI, these people said. He has met numerous times with investigators.
Last year, Prince told lawmakers — and the news media — that his Seychelles meeting with Kirill Dmitriev, the head of a Russian government-controlled wealth fund, was an unplanned, unimportant encounter that came about by chance because he happened to be at a luxury hotel in the Indian Ocean island nation with officials from the United Arab Emirates.
In his statements, Prince has specifically denied reporting by the Washington Post that said the Seychelles meeting, which took place about a week before Trump’s inauguration, was described by U.S., European and Arab officials as part of an effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and the incoming administration.
Prince told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee that he did not plan to meet Dmitriev in the Seychelles but that once he was there discussing possible business deals with UAE officials, they unexpectedly suggested that he visit the hotel bar and meet Dmitriev.
“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 told lawmakers.
The two men, he said, spoke for no more than 30 minutes, or about the time it took him to drink a beer.
“We chatted on topics ranging from oil and commodity prices to how much his country wished for resumption of normal trade relations with the USA,” Prince told lawmakers. “I remember telling him that if Franklin Roosevelt could work with Josef Stalin to defeat Nazi fascism, then certainly Donald Trump could work with Vladimir Putin to defeat Islamic fascism.”