At least three members of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign staff reportedly were in contact with a secretive Israeli intelligence company in an alleged attempt to use social media manipulation on behalf of the then presidential candidate and against his rivals.
The company, Psy-Group, is reportedly being investigated by the FBI in connection with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into alleged illegal interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that Psy-Group created several secretive proposals for the Trump campaign at the behest of Rick Gates, who has since pleaded guilty and offered to cooperate with the FBI probe into foreign meddling in the US election.
According to a report Friday in the Daily Beast, however, former Trump campaign employees have indicated that the campaign was more heavily involved with Psy-Group than previously believed, with at least two more individuals aside from Gates having “reached out” to the Israeli firm.
The sources who spoke to the Daily Beast did not disclose the identities of the other two individuals. But “both represented themselves as members of Trump’s inner circle, former employees said,” according to the Daily Beast.
According to the earlier New York Times report, Psy-Group, which employed former Israeli intelligence officers, offered to engineer campaigns in support of Trump using social media manipulation against both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and 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 Israeli 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 GOP operative George Birnbaum, who has close ties to some Israeli politicians, a few days after joining the Trump campaign, according to the 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.
The company was reportedly told by an American law firm that its activities would be illegal if non-Americans were involved.
While Gates ultimately rejected the proposals, Psy-Group head Joel Zamel reportedly outlined the idea to Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. at a August 3, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
George 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 Robert 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.”
Psy-Group was also involved in covert anti-BDS efforts, according to a lawsuit against the company and multiple sources who spoke to The Times of Israel.
BDS is a campaign by some pro-Palestinian activists encouraging people to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel over what they call its ill-treatment of the Palestinians.
The Times of Israel was told by multiple sources that Psy-Group worked to counter BDS activists — and is one of several such firms, set up by or employing former Israeli intelligence operatives, that do so.
Such work, The Times of Israel was told, is known to the Israeli government, and specifically the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, but is not paid for by the government.
The sources said that such companies engage in various undercover activities against BDS leaders and activists. This work includes highlighting the sources of funding for BDS activities if such funding is obtained from terrorist or other banned organizations, and making public instances where activists have expressed extremist and/or anti-Semitic views. The goal can be to deter the activists from continuing their activities, the sources explained.
In the case of Psy-Group, The Times of Israel was told but could not independently verify, its anti-BDS work was financed by private donors, and the firm did not engage in illegal activity, did not disseminate false information, and did not engage in hacking.
Psy-Group is currently in bankruptcy proceedings in an Israeli court.