By Keri Geiger and Michael Riley / Bloomberg News
NEW YORK — In the very public, post-election parade of dignitaries, confidantes and job-seekers filing in and out of Donald Trump’s marquee Manhattan tower, Blackwater founder Erik Prince was largely out of sight. And yet Prince was very much a presence, providing advice to Trump’s inner circle, including his top national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, according to people familiar with his activities.
Trump was weakest in the area where the stakes were highest — foreign affairs. Among those his aides turned to was Prince, a man whose specialty is paramilitary security forces, and whose company is best remembered after its employees were convicted of killing Iraqi citizens, including children, in the notorious 2007 Nisour Square gun battle. Prince wasn’t implicated in the shootings. In the decade since, Prince has carved out a role as a controversial critic of U.S. policies to fight terrorism, a view often espoused by the incoming Trump administration, which was eager to ramp up its anti-terrorism policies.
According to people familiar with his activities, Prince entered Trump Tower through the back, like others who wanted to avoid the media spotlight, and huddled with members of the president-elect’s team to discuss intelligence and security issues. The conversations provide a glimpse of Prince’s relationship with an administration that’s distanced itself from him since the Washington Post reported earlier this month that Prince had met with a top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Seychelles in January.
That island encounter was the latest in a series of conversations between Trump advisers and Russians that have come to light as U.S. investigators probe allegations that Russia interfered with the presidential election.
A person close to Prince said the Seychelles meeting was arranged at the request of the United Arab Emirates. The person added that it was a private meeting and that Prince was not representing the Trump administration.
“Erik had no role in the transition,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said again when asked about Prince last week.
A Prince spokesman in London said the same in a statement: “Erik had no role on the transition team. This is a complete fabrication. The meeting had nothing to do with President Trump.” He also questioned whether Prince’s activities were being monitored. “Why is the so-called under-resourced intelligence community messing around with surveillance of American citizens when they should be hunting terrorists?”
A ‘significant’ role
Yet over a two to three month period around the election, Prince met several times with top aides as the incoming government took shape, offering ideas on how to fight terror and restructure the country’s major intelligence agencies, according to information provided by five people familiar with the meetings. Among those he conferred with was Flynn, a member of the transition team who joined the administration and was later dismissed, some of the people said. He discussed possible government appointees with people in the private sector, one person said. Prince himself told several people that while he was not offering his advice in any official capacity, his role was significant.
The meetings occurred in Trump Tower, the administration’s transition office in Washington and elsewhere, according to people familiar with them. In one informal discussion in late November, Prince spoke openly with two members of Trump’s transition team on a train bound from New York to Washington. He boarded the same Acela as Kellyanne Conway and they sat together. Joining the conversation at one point was Kevin Harrington, a longtime associate of Trump adviser Peter Thiel who is now on the National Security Council. They discussed, in broad terms, major changes the incoming administration envisioned for the intelligence community, as recounted by a person on the train who overheard their conversation.
Conway declined to comment for this story. Harrington said through a spokesman that he recalled speaking briefly to Prince on the train ride but that was the only time he talked to him.
Prince was a generous financial backer of the Trump campaign, along with his sister, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Prince contributed at least $100,000 through a political action committee run by billionaire hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer. That PAC also funneled contributions from Thiel, the billionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has acted as an informal liaison to the high-tech world for the White House.
Neither Mercer nor Thiel responded to requests for comment sent to their spokesmen.
A longtime critic of government defense and security policies, Prince advocated a restructuring of security agencies as well as a thorough rethink of costly defense programs, even if it meant canceling existing major contracts in favor of smaller ones, said a person familiar with the matter.
Prince is no longer talking to those in the administration, said the person close to him, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were intended to remain private. His influence waned after Flynn was ousted as National Security Adviser in February over concerns about his own disclosures and conversations with the Russian ambassador. And Prince has no relationship with Flynn’s successor, General H. R. McMaster.
Flynn did not respond to a request for comment.
Prince’s discussions can be seen as a testament to the all-comers-welcome nature of the Trump transition, which listened to theories and suggestions from a range of supporters with conservative views.
Prince would have been among the more controversial. During the Iraq war, Blackwater landed more than $1 billion worth of government contracts to provide personal protection for visiting officials and assist with military operations and, according to Prince’s memoir, carry out covert operations for the Central Intelligence Agency.
In 2007, guards working for Blackwater, which had been running a lucrative executive protection mission for the State Department in Iraq since the start of the war, were accused of killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in a bloody shootout on a Baghdad street corner. A year earlier, a Blackwater guard had killed a bodyguard to an Iraqi official. He was fired, sent home and never charged with a crime. Four contractors were later convicted by a federal jury in the street corner shootout and sentenced to jail. Their cases are on appeal.
These incidents prompted a grilling by lawmakers in a public hearing in 2007, wrongful death lawsuits against the company and a criminal investigation by federal authorities into the shooting. Blackwater, which had been among the most prominent military contractors in Iraq, was forced out of the country.
After years of additional investigations and lawsuits, Prince sold the firm to an investor group in 2010. Blackwater was renamed Xe Services, then Academi, and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the government in 2012 over violations of arms sales rules and paid a $7.5 million fine. Prosecutors said it was the conclusion of “a lengthy and complex investigation into a company which has provided valuable services to the United States government, but which, at times, and in many ways, failed to comply with important laws and regulations.”
Prince was never charged with a crime, and he said allegations of wrongdoing were baseless. He now runs Frontier Resource Group, a Hong Kong fund with Chinese investors who see opportunities in natural resources in Africa.
More recently, Prince’s money, connections and conservative credentials have allowed him to move easily in and around Trump World. He was a guest, along with Trump, at Mercer’s Villains and Heroes holiday party last year. Prince also attended the election-night victory party at Trump Tower.
Last year, Prince was often heard on Breitbart radio, overseen by Steve Bannon, who today serves as White House chief strategist. Speaking on topics such as immigration and how to defeat terrorists, Prince laid out a three-point plan to deal with ISIS.
In the heat of the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, Prince claimed New York police found evidence of Hillary Clinton and her closest advisers committing “criminal activity,” including money laundering and “under-age sex.” The evidence was purportedly in Clinton emails seized in the investigation of former Congressman Anthony Weiner. Prince cited sources at the New York Police Department. The claim was never substantiated, nor did the police address the allegations.
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