The Russia probe is picking up major steam, with a seemingly big breakthrough Wednesday: A witness has testified that a meeting in the Seychelles shortly before Donald Trump took office was intended to establish a backchannel of communication with the Kremlin, according to reports.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday night that a cooperating witness had told special counsel Robert Mueller's investigators that the secret January 2017 meeting in the island nation off East Africa was planned so that a representative of Trump’s transition team could discuss the future relationship between the two major powers with a Russian rep.
The report said that the testimony of George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman who was present, was key evidence, but not the only evidence, in establishing this version of events.
That account directly contradicts the sworn testimony given to congressional investigators by Erik Prince, the founder of the security firm Blackwater, who described his meeting with a Russian banker believed to be close to Vladimir Putin as a spontaneous, chance encounter.
Who was at the meeting?
The central figure is Prince, the Blackwater founder as well as a Trump donor and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Prince told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee that he was meeting with senior officials from the United Arab Emirates – including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the de facto ruler – at a luxury hotel in the Seychelles when they spontaneously suggested he meet with Kirill Dmitriev in the hotel bar.
He said he spoke with Dmitriev – manager of a $10 billion Russian-government established sovereign wealth fund that’s under U.S. sanctions – for no more than 30 minutes, about the time it took him to drink a beer.
He didn’t disclose that Nader, an adviser to al-Nahyan and former consultant for Blackwater, was also present. The New York Times was first to report Tuesday night that Nader is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.
What does it mean?
It’s not yet clear exactly what Nader has been telling Mueller’s team since he was subpoenaed and questioned by the FBI at an airport in January.
But his testimony is clearly seen as a central pillar in a strengthening case that the Seychelles meeting was not a chance meeting but a deliberate attempt to establish a deniable line of communication between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin – something the White House and Prince have denied.
For Prince personally, it also raises questions over whether he lied under oath to congressional investigators.
“During his Russia investigation interview, Mr. Prince was asked directly by me and Mr. Schiff who he met with while he was in the Seychelles,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a member of the Intelligence Committee, told CNN. “He never gave the name George Nader. If he met with George Nader, he lied under oath.”