Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater USA, and brother of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos, has come under fire recently for potentially lying to Congress. On April 30, 2019, Representative Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent a criminal referral letter to the Department of Justice to investigate whether Prince made materially false statements during his testimony in front of the committee. These statements were flagged as potential misrepresentations following the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 2018 report into whether the Russian government interfered with the 2016 Presidential election. A Forensic News analysis has revealed that Prince misled both Congress and the FBI on topics relating to foreign interference in the 2016 election.
About one week before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, January 12, 2017, American businessman, George Nader, arranged a meeting in the Seychelles between Prince and Russian financier, Kirill Dmitriev. According to Special Counsel Mueller, Dmitriev was not keen on meeting with Prince, and only did so upon reassurances that the meeting would be worthwhile. In an attempt to bolster Prince’s credibility, Nader wrote to Dmitriev, telling him, “I know [Prince] and he is very very well connected and trusted by the New Team. His sister is now a Minister of Education.”
On November 30, 2017, Prince appeared in front of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where he was pressed on the Seychelles meeting. At the time, Congressional lawmakers were investigating whether President Trump and his campaign improperly worked with the Russian Government to interfere with the 2016 election. According to the Washington Post, along with other organizations, Prince remains under investigation for lying during his testimony to lawmakers about his connection to the Trump campaign. Reviewing his testimony, the line between reality and Prince’s statements becomes blurred.
At the beginning of the hearing, lawmakers asked whether Prince played a “role” in the President’s 2016 campaign. Prince stated that he, “played no official, or really, unofficial role.” However, according to Special Counsel Mueller, the purpose of this meeting was, in part, to discuss foreign relations between the U.S. and Russia. Moreover, according to Nader, Prince was “designated by Steve [Bannon]” and was very connected with the new team, referring ostensibly to the Trump Administration. Moreover, Prince met with multiple Trump Administration officials including Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, during the President’s transition into office. Based on public reporting, Dmitriev likely would not have taken a meeting with Prince if it was not for his connection to the President and the incoming Administration.
Later in his testimony, Prince mentioned that he was invited to the Seychelles by Mohammed Bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to Prince, while he was in the Seychelles, he met with the Crown Prince along with his delegation. The meeting between Erik Prince and Bin Zayed was casual, with the two discussing various geopolitical subjects including oil and mineral prices. When asked by Representative Schiff whether the two meetings—one with the Crown Prince and the second with Dmitriev—were the only two meetings he attended while in the Seychlles, Prince responded, “yeah . . . something like that.”
During this line of questioning, Prince failed to inform lawmakers of a third meeting he had that came in the form of a follow-up meeting with Dmitriev. Mueller noted that following the first meeting between Prince and Dmitriev, Prince went back to his hotel room, where he learned about a Russian aircraft carrier making its way toward Libya. In response, Prince notified Nader, and asked him to contact Dmitriev to set up a follow-up meeting. Nader immediately messaged Dmitriev stating that Prince, “received an urgent message that he needs to convey to you immediately.” During this follow-up meeting, Prince urged Dmitriev that Russia could not maintain influence in Libya because it would make the situation worse. This situation, while unclear, likely referred to the current humanitarian crisis in Libya. Prince failed to disclose this third meeting during his testimony.
Later during his testimony, it appears as though Prince lied when being questioned by Democratic Rep. Jim Himes. Himes opined as to why an individual, like Prince, would fly across the world to the Seychelles to have an impromptu and casual meeting over drinks. Before Himes was able to finish his questioning, Prince jumped in, and stated, “I didn’t fly there to meet any Russian guy.” However, in Mueller’s report, he noted that Prince met with Nader on January 3, 2017 in New York City. The topic of this meeting was Dmitriev and an attempt to establish a link between the Russians and the incoming Trump Administration. During multiple meetings Jan. 3, Nader brought up the possibility of meeting with Dmitriev. Four days after these meetings, on Jan. 7, 2017, Prince booked his flight to the Seychelles, and Nader texted Dmitriev that he arranged a meeting with a “Special Guest,” referring to Prince, who was part of the “New Team,” referring to the incoming Trump Administration. It does not appear that Prince would have traveled to the Seychelles but for his planned meeting with the “Russian guy” referring to Dmitriev.
Since his testimony in front of the Intelligence Committee, Prince has claimed that he did not lie to Congress. According to Prince, in an interview Mehdi Hasan, for Al Jazeera English’s Head to Head, he believed that Congress likely “got the transcript wrong” and that multiple conversations during the hearing were not detailed in the public transcript. On the contrary, according to the Wall Street Journal, the Department of Justice was nearing a final decision into whether to charge Prince for making false statements to Congress. Assistant Attorney General, Stephen E. Boyd, confirmed the receipt of Congress’s criminal referral Feb. 4, 2020, and noted that it would be referred to the proper investigatory agency. He noted, however, that his letter was merely responsive to the Chairman’s inquiry, and that it was not meant to signify the opening of an official investigation.
His testimony in front of the Intelligence Committee is not the only one under scrutiny. In recently released 302s by the FBI and Mueller’s team, additional misrepresentations made by Prince are on full display. During his interview, Prince stated that the first time he heard of Dmitriev was when he met with Bin Zayed in the Seychelles. According to Prince, Bin Zayed mentioned that he should meet with Dmitriev while in the Seychelles. These statements, however, were untrue. As previously discussed, the purpose of Prince’s trip to the Seychelles was his meeting with Dmitriev, and repeatedly mentioned him to Nader days before leaving the United States.
Moreover, during his interview, Prince also discussed his relationship with Joel Zamel, the owner and operator of Psy-Group, a now-defunct Israeli Private Intelligence agency. Prince mentions that he did not know if “[Zamel] was associated with the PSY-Group.” However, in the now-released Senate Intelligence Committee Report on potential Russian interference during the 2016 election, the Committee noted that Prince and Zamel met multiple times about project “Black Jack” designed to improve Prince’s online reputation. Although a contract never materialized, it is curious how Prince could claim that he did not know about Zamel’s connection to PSY-Group when speaking to the FBI, yet Prince himself attempted to work on a project with the intelligence agency.
Erik Prince’s involvement with Zamel was documented extensively in the Committee Report. In the fall of 2016, Zamel approached the Trump Campaign in an effort to pitch Psy-Group’s services after a previous attempt failed. Zamel discussed this pitch with Nader and Prince, who according to the report, Zamel believed was connected to the Trump team. Through this time, Prince was in repeated contact with Zamel, and led a meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Zamel, where Zamel discussed his relationship with Psy-Group and its capabilities. According to the Senate Report, Zamel inquired into whether there would be a conflict of interest if Psy-Group conducted a social media campaign paid by Nader. In response, Trump Jr. indicated that this would not create a conflict of interest with the Trump Campaign.
The report further indicates that during this conversation, Prince encouraged Nader to pay for the project, stating loudly “[y]ou should pay him.” Although it is now clear that Zamel spoke with Trump Jr., Prince and Nader about a number of topics, including Psy-Group’s social media tactics, Prince failed to disclose those subjects in his interview with the FBI. Specifically, Prince told the FBI that Zamel did not discuss anything with him about the Trump Campaign’s social media activities. According to the FBI’s 302, Prince mentioned that Zemel only spoke about his communications project to “bolster his position for a change in Iran policy.” During this same interview, Prince claimed to not know Zamel’s connection with Psy-Group.
The Senate report throws cold water on many of these statements. In lieu of testifying in front of the committee, Prince exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and instead provided the committee with a statement. However, the report noted that “Prince’s statement contains conspicuous omissions and partially contradicted claims.” Taking into account the FBI interview, along with the reports issued by both Mueller and the Senate, it is clear that many statements made by Prince now appear to be untruthful, and potentially in violation of a criminal statute.
As a result of the criminal referral, Prince may face charges regardless of if he was under oath when testifying in front of Congress. Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1621, Prince may be charged with perjury if he willfully made a false statement, while under oath, to Congress. However, under 18 U.S.C. § 1001, Prince may be charged with willfully making false statements, regardless of if he was under oath. The fact that he appeared in front of a Legislative body would be enough to satisfy the requirements under § 1001. It is important to note, however, that proving willfulness is extremely difficult under the law. If the Justice Department were to pursue criminal charges, they would be required to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Prince intentionally and had the specific intent to make false statements to Congress.
Moreover, Prince may face legal troubles as a result of his alleged destruction of evidence during both Mueller and the Congressional investigations. According to the FBI interview, “[t]he earliest text messages in Prince’s cell phone are from March 2017. Prince used his cell phone prior to March 2017. Prince does not know why the text messages do not go back farther than March 2017.” Under 18 U.S.C. § 1519, any individual who knowingly destroys or alters evidence with the intent to obstruct an active investigation can face criminal jeopardy. Although it is unclear whether Prince deleted the text messages, if he did, he likely would be subject to criminal penalty.
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To this day, Prince has substantial access to the President and the White House. Not only is his sister a cabinet member in the Trump Administration, but he is also a large donor to the President’s campaign. In recent weeks, Prince’s access has been spotlighted by the President’s decision to pardon four former Blackwater contractors who were serving lengthy sentences for the murder of Iraqi citizens during the Iraq war. At the time, these contractors were reported to have committed one of the worst war crimes in history—killing multiple women and children, all of whom were innocent civilians.
These pardons have come on the precipice of the President leaving office after serving his first, and only term in the White House. Recent reporting has focused on whether the President will soon pardon himself, his family members, and close allies around him. Since early February 2020, the Justice Department has not made any public representations into whether the investigation into Prince remains active. Although pardons are typically used for those already convicted of criminal offenses, as many have put it, this President is far from conventional. Therefore, one would have to wonder whether Erik Prince is next up on the list of pardons.