U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has evidence that a secret meeting in the Seychelles just before U.S. President Donald Trump took office was an effort by his campaign to establish a back channel with the Kremlin, The Washington Post has reported.
The meeting in the Indian Ocean island nation in January 2017 was between Erik Prince, a prominent U.S. military contractor who is the brother of Trump's education secretary, and Kirill Dmitriyev, the head of a Russian government-controlled wealth fund who is close to President Vladimir Putin, The Washington Post reported late on March 7.
Citing people familiar with the matter, whom it did not identify, The Washington Post said that a witness cooperating with Mueller has told investigators the meeting was set up in advance so that a representative of the Trump transition team could meet with an emissary from Moscow to discuss future relations between the countries.
The Washington Post said that George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman who helped organize and attended the Seychelles meeting, has testified on the matter before a grand jury gathering evidence about possible ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
The Washington Post said Nader started cooperating with Mueller's investigation as a witness in January.
Prince denied that he met with Dmitriyev on behalf of Trump and referred reporters to his public comments on the meeting last year.
Last year, Prince told lawmakers and the media that the meeting was an unplanned, unimportant encounter that came about by chance because he happened to be at a luxury hotel in the Seychelles for meetings with officials from the United Arab Emirates.
Prince had no formal role in Trump's campaign and said he went to the Seychelles as a private businessman, not as an unofficial emissary for Trump.
Prince said he was introduced to Dmitriyev by U.A.E. officials and spoke with the Russian for no more than 30 minutes. He specifically denied last year that the meeting was arranged to set up a back channel of communication with the Kremlin.
“We chatted on topics ranging from oil and commodity prices to how much his country wished for resumption of normal trade relations with the U.S.A.,” Prince told lawmakers.
“I remember telling him that if Franklin Roosevelt could work with Josef Stalin to defeat Nazi fascism, then certainly Donald Trump could work with Vladimir Putin to defeat Islamic fascism.”
The Washington Post said the U.A.E. agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its close relationship with Iran -- a key objective of both the Trump administration and several Gulf Arab countries.
The Washington Post, citing U.S. officials, said such a concession by Moscow would have been required to justify any easing of U.S. sanctions on Russia by the Trump administration.
The Washington Post said that while Mueller is probing the circumstances of the Seychelles meeting, he is also more broadly examining apparent efforts by the Trump transition team to create a back channel for secret talks with the Kremlin.
After the Seychelles meeting, Nader visited the White House several times and met at least once there with former presidential adviser Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, The Washington Post said.
With reporting by Reuters