Three months before the November 2016 elections, senior members of the campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump, including his son Donald Trump Jr., reportedly met with a small group of people from the Mideast who offered to help the controversial businessman win the race against Hillary Clinton. The group included “an Israeli specialist in social media manipulation,” an emissary for two wealthy Arab princes, and Erik Prince, a Republican donor and the former head of the private security firm Blackwater whose sister Betsy Devos is now secretary of education, the New York Times reported on Saturday.
The August 3, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan, according to the report, “was convened primarily to offer help to the Trump team, and it forged relationships between the men and Trump insiders that would develop over the coming months — past the election and well into President Trump’s first year in office, according to several people with knowledge of their encounters.”
According to the report, the Israeli specialist, Joel Zamel, “extolled his company’s ability to give an edge to a political campaign,” and his firm “had already drawn up a multimillion-dollar proposal for a social media manipulation effort to help elect Mr. Trump.”
The company, PSY-Group, according to the NY Times report, “employed several Israeli former intelligence officers” and “specialized in collecting information and shaping opinion through social media.” Zamel is also founding director and CEO of geopolitical analysis and business consultancy group Wikistrat, according to Bloomberg.
The plan drawn up by Zamel’s company, according to the report, which cited three people involved and a fourth briefed on the effort,” involved using thousands of fake social media accounts to promote Mr. Trump’s candidacy on platforms like Facebook.”
“There were concerns inside the company, Psy-Group, about the plan’s legality, according to one person familiar with the effort,” The Times report said. “The company, whose motto is ‘shape reality,’ consulted an American law firm, and was told that it would be illegal if any non-Americans were involved in the effort.
The Gulf emissary was George Nader, a longtime close adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed of Abu Dhabi, who conveyed to Trump Jr. “that the crown princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president.”
Nader allegedly said that the two crown princes “saw the elder Mr. Trump as a strong leader who would fill the power vacuum that they believed Mr. Obama had left in the Middle East, and Mr. Nader went on to say that he and his friends would be glad to support Mr. Trump as much as they could, according to the person with knowledge of the conversation.”
Zamel has worked as a consultant to the UAE royal court, the report said.
Trump Jr. “responded approvingly,” the New York Times said, citing “a person with knowledge of the meeting,” and following the initial offers for help, Nader “was quickly embraced as a close ally by Trump campaign advisers — meeting frequently with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, and Michael T. Flynn, who became the president’s first national security adviser.”
Nader was also reportedly “promoting a secret plan to use private contractors to destabilize Iran, the regional nemesis of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.”
After Trump won the election, Nader paid Zamel “a large sum of money, described by one associate as up to $2 million.” and while the NY Times said there were conflicting accounts for the payment, “a company linked to Mr. Zamel provided Mr. Nader with an elaborate presentation about the significance of social media campaigning to Mr. Trump’s victory.”
After Trump’s inauguration, Zamel and Nader “visited the White House, meeting with Mr. Kushner and Mr. Bannon,” The Times said.
The August 3 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.
The revelation of the meeting is the first indication that countries other than Russia may have offered assistance to the Trump campaign.
Nader also reportedly visited Moscow twice during the campaign and Zamel’s businesses have ties to Russia, which are “of interest” to the special counsel’s investigation, according to the report.
Zamel was already questioned by investigators for the special counsel, the report said, “and at least two FBI agents working on the inquiry have traveled to Israel to interview employees of the company who worked on the proposal.”
The Israeli police worked with US investigators to seize the computers of one of Mr. Zamel’s companies, which is currently in liquidation, according to the report.
Nader too has been cooperating with the inquiry, the report said, “and investigators have questioned numerous witnesses in Washington, New York, Atlanta, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere about what foreign help may have been pledged or accepted, and about whether any such assistance was coordinated with Russia, according to witnesses and others with knowledge of the interviews.”
A lawyer for Trump Jr., Alan Futerfas, told the NY Times in a statement 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.”
A lawyer for Zamel, Marc L. Mukasey, told the NY Times, that “neither Joel Zamel, nor any of his related entities, had any involvement whatsoever in the US election campaign.”
“The DOJ [Department of Justice] clarified from Day 1 that Joel and his companies have never been a target of the investigation. My client provided full cooperation to the government to assist with their investigation,” he said.
“There was a brief meeting, nothing concrete was offered or pitched to anyone and nothing came of it,” he added.
The New York Times reported that though it is still unclear if any direct assistance was forthcoming from Saudi Arabia, or the UAE, “two people familiar with the meetings said that Trump campaign officials did not appear bothered by the idea of cooperation with foreigners.”
The August 3, 2016 meeting came two months after Trump Jr., Kushner, and others met with a Russian lawyer who promised damaging information on Clinton.
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee released about 2,500 pages of interview transcripts and other documents tied to the New York meeting on June 9, 2016.
In a closed-door interview last year with the committee, Trump Jr., said he did not give much thought to the idea that the meeting was part of a Russian government effort to help his father in the presidential race.
AP contributed to this report