By Billy House
Blackwater Security founder Erik Prince told U.S. House lawmakers conducting the Russia probe that he discussed U.S. trade policy with Kirill Dmitriev, the head of the Russian investment fund in January, but insisted he wasn’t operating as a back-channel for the incoming Trump administration.
Prince said he knew Dmitriev was a Russian fund manager, but didn’t realize that the Russian government controlled it and that it had been sanctioned by the U.S. since 2015 due to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
The House Intelligence Committee released Wednesday a 105-page transcript of his Dec. 1 testimony to its Russia probe, where he was asked about the Jan. 11 meeting in the Seychelles, a remote Indian Ocean archipelago off East Africa.
That meeting has drawn the attention of congressional committees looking into potentially improper contacts between the Trump campaign and transition team with Russians, and sparked questions about whether Prince may have been an unofficial envoy on behalf of Trump or his associates.
Prince, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and the brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, denied that. He told the the committee he had traveled to the Seychelles nine days before Trump’s inauguration to meet with some potential business customers from the United Arab Emirates.
During that meeting, he said, those potential customers simply “mentioned a guy who I should also meet who was also in town.”
He recounted meeting Dmitriev at a hotel bar, where they discussed topics ranging from oil to commodity prices. He also said that Dmitriev discussed how much his country wished to resume 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,” said Prince.
Prince said the meeting lasted 30 minutes.
“So, this notion you were representing the Trump campaign is not true?” Representative Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican, asked him.
“That is correct,” said Prince. “I played no official or, really, unofficial role,” he said of the campaign.
He said he met Trump himself only once, at a fundraiser prior to the election. He said he was simply a donor, and that he had written some foreign policy papers “into the adviser sphere on what should be done on Middle Eastern or counterterrorism issues.”
After the release of the transcript Wednesday, Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, issued a statement asserting Prince was less than forthcoming about details of the meeting and sought to portray the discussion with Dmitriev as “merely coincidental.”
“Prince also could not adequately explain why he traveled halfway around the world to meet with U.A.E. officials and, ultimately, the head of the Russian fund,” said Schiff.
Schiff also noted that in his testimony, Prince acknowledged that he learned from Trump’s chief campaign strategist Steve Bannon about a secret December 2016 meeting in New York City between high-ranking Trump transition and U.A.E. officials, included the emirate’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. But Prince declined to provide the committee with many specifics of his discussion with Bannon.
Prince also complained during his testimony about U.S. intelligence community spying on Americans, and so-called improper identifying or “unmasking” of Americans caught up in surveillance of foreigners.
‘That is Illegal’
“What really bothers me and what I hope the Intelligence Committee is doing is questioning why Americans that were caught in waves of signals intelligence, why on Earth would the Washington Post be running an article on any meeting that a private citizen, me, was having in a foreign country,” he said. “That is illegal.”
Prince claimed to have received a leak of classified information from former intelligence community employees regarding his trip to the Seychelles, but Schiff said he refused to disclose who provided him the information.
Prince is best known for his role running Blackwater, which was hired to provide private security during the U.S. war with Iraq. Controversy erupted in 2007, when Blackwater guards stopping traffic for a State Department convoy shot and killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians during a chaotic scene in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.