A top Trump campaign aide asked an Israeli private intelligence firm — with links to the IDF, Cambridge Analytica and a Russian billionaire — to devise a “social media manipulation” strategy to hurt Trump’s political rivals during the primaries and the election, according to a New York Times report.
Rick Gates, then Trump’s deputy campaign manager, reportedly contacted Psy-Group in 2016, seeking fake online personas to help sway some 5,000 delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention by attacking Ted Cruz — Trump’s main opponent for the Republican nomination.
A second proposal outlined how Trump’s team could use opposition research and “complementary intelligence activities” about Hillary Clinton and people close to her to win the election.
The secret proposals were codenamed “Project Rome,” with those involved also given codenames — Trump was “Lion”, Clinton was “Forest”, and Cruz was “Bear.”
There is no direct evidence that Gates or anyone within the Trump campaign acted on the Israeli company’s proposals.
However, journalist and researcher Carolin Orr, who specializes in disinformation campaigns, noted how the portrayal of Trump as a lion has infiltrated myriad recent conservative online campaigns.
“The pro-lion thing has appeared in almost every major social media campaign I can think of since the primaries. Including those fake accounts I caught posing as Parkland students, as well as recent pro-Kavanaugh disinformation,” Orr said.
Special counsel Robert Mueller is actively examining the Trump team’s contacts with Psy-Group, and The Times reports that investigators have already interviewed workers from the company and collected documents from its headquarters in Israel.
This is not the first time the Psy-Group has been linked to the Trump campaign.
It was reported in May that Psy-Group owner Joel Zamel met Donald Trump Jr. three months before the election at a Trump Tower meeting also attended by the private security contractor Erik Prince and Saudi emissary George Nader.
The meeting was called to discuss deploying “thousands of fake social media accounts to promote Mr. Trump’s candidacy on platforms like Facebook,” the Times reported.
Additionally, Bloomberg reported that Mueller was investigating flows of money into Psy-Group’s Cyprus bank account. Later the Wall Street Journal revealed that the company “formed a strategic partnership” with Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that worked with the Trump campaign “in a joint bid to win business from the U.S. government and other clients after the 2016 election.”
An investigation by New Knowledge AI, a Texas-based company that fights disinformation, noted that Psy-Group posted job descriptions in 2016 seeking to hire American-English speakers with political science backgrounds, which New Knowledge suggests was because “they intended to target Americans for political objectives.”
Another investigation found links between Psy-Group’s parent company, Protexer, and Moscow.
It was revealed that Protexer, which is based in the British Virgin Islands, has another subsidiary called MGTM Financial Services Limited, which is controlled by the Metropol Group in Moscow — a multibillion-dollar Russian consortium. Metropol is controlled by former lawmaker Mikhail Slipenchuk.
Cover image: Rick Gates looks on as GOP Presidential candidate Donald Trump checks the podium early Thursday afternoon in preparation for accepting the GOP nomination to be President at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on Wednesday July 20, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)