Rick Gates, a former senior official in Donald Trump’s 2016 US presidential campaign, is answering questions as part of the Mueller investigation into the alleged involvement of an Israeli firm in attempts to manipulate the results of the election, The Daily Beast reported Wednesday.
According to the report, Gates has been specifically questioned on the activities of Psy-Group, a company alleged to have used social media manipulation on Trump’s behalf.
US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team has asked Gates about his relationship with the owner of Psy-Group, Joel Zamel, as well as any interactions with Lebanese-American George Nader, sources told the outlet.
Sources familiar with the investigation said that Mueller asked Gates whether he approached Psy-Group, either directly or through an intermediary, or if the Israeli firm reached out to the Trump campaign.
Employees of the Israeli company said they have been interviewed by the FBI, which asked about two Republicans other than Gates who are thought to have been in contact with Psy-Group. One of those was GOP operative George Birnbaum, who has close ties to some Israeli politicians.
Former employees of Psy-Group told The Daily Beast that they only interacted with Birnbaum and did not have a direct relationship with Gates. They said Zamel told staff that he had used materials collected by Psy-Group in his interactions with associates of Trump.
“Joel is a very secretive guy, he holds all his cards very close to the chest,” a former employee said. “It’s very possible he was running some sort of side operation that used Psy resources but didn’t include the staff.”
Psy-Group created several secretive proposals for the Trump campaign at the behest of Gates, who has since pleaded guilty and offered to cooperate with the FBI probe into foreign meddling in the US election, The New York Times reported last year.
According to the report, Psy-Group, which employed former Israeli intelligence officers before undergoing liquidation, offered to engineer campaigns in support of Trump using social media manipulation against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as well as Republican Senator Ted Cruz, whom the campaign feared could attempt to push an insurgent nomination effort at the Republican Convention in Cleveland.
One campaign would have collected information about delegates to the convention and used fake online profiles to bombard them with messaging that described Cruz’s “ulterior motives or hidden plans,” or appeared to come from Cruz supporters, in an effort to discredit him and persuade them to support Trump’s nomination.
Another campaign would use the same tactic to target female minorities in the suburbia in swing states to push them toward Trump and away from Clinton.
The company also proposed collecting opposition research on Clinton and 10 of her associates using open source methods and “complementary intelligence activities.”
The proposals were kept secret, with code words “Lion,” “Forest” and “Bear” used to signify Trump, Clinton and Cruz respectively.
Gates first heard about Psy-Group from Birnbaum a few days after joining the Trump campaign, according to the New York Times report.
The Trump campaign apparently did not express interest in the proposals, and it is unclear whether the activities would have fallen afoul of US laws prohibiting foreign interference in elections, the report said.
According to a New York Times report in May, the company was told by an American law firm that its activities would be illegal if non-Americans were involved.
While Gates ultimately rejected the proposals, according to the report, Psy-Group head Zamel apparently outlined the idea to Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. at a August 3, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
Nader, a longtime close adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed of Abu Dhabi who was also at that meeting, paid Zamel $2 million after the election, according to the reports. Nader and Zamel have provided differing accounts for the reason behind the payment.
The Psy-Group proposals would have cost over $3.4 million, according to the documents obtained by The Times.
The August 3 Trump Tower meeting is a focus of the ongoing investigation by Mueller, the special counsel, who was tasked last year with examining possible cooperation and coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia in the lead-up to the election.
Zamel has been questioned by investigators for the special counsel, according to the reports, and FBI agents have traveled to Israel to interview employees about the proposal and have asked Israeli police to seize computers from Psy-Group’s Petah Tikva offices.
A lawyer for Zamel denied to the Times that he had discussed the proposal with anyone from the Trump campaign.
“Mr. Zamel never pitched, or otherwise discussed, any of Psy-Group’s proposals relating to the US elections with anyone related to the Trump campaign, including not with Donald Trump Jr., except for outlining the capabilities of some of his companies in general terms,” said the lawyer, Marc Mukasey.
A lawyer for Trump Jr., Alan Futerfas, told the The Times in May that “prior to the 2016 election, Donald Trump Jr. recalls a meeting with Erik Prince, George Nader, and another individual who may be Joel Zamel. They pitched Mr. Trump Jr. on a social media platform or marketing strategy. He was not interested and that was the end of it.”