Did Trump Have a Back Channel Line of Communication with Putin?

Yesterday I wrote about the report in the New York Times that George Nader, a Lebanese-American businessman who advises Crown Prince Zayed of the United Arab Emirates, is cooperating with the Mueller investigation. I speculated that the special counsel’s interest in Nader’s testimony had to do with an attempt to set up a back channel line of communication between the Trump administration and Moscow. That has now been corroborated by a source in the Washington Post.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has gathered evidence that a secret meeting in Seychelles just before the inauguration of Donald Trump was an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin — apparently contradicting statements made to lawmakers by one of its participants, according to people familiar with the matter.

If true, that means trouble for Erik Prince, who lied during testimony to the House Intelligence Committee by suggesting that his clandestine meeting in Seychelles with Nader and Kirill Dmitriev was simply a chance encounter. According to a previous report in the Washington Post, it was Prince who approached UAE Crown Prince Zayed to set up the meeting with a Putin associate. Not only does that mean Prince could be prosecuted for lying, it is yet another example of a member of Trump’s team being dishonest about their contacts with Russians.

It is also interesting to note that Nader was served with a subpoena and search warrants shortly after landing in Washington, D.C. on January 17th. Combined with the fact that the Washington Post is reporting that his testimony is not the only evidence investigators have about the meeting in Seychelles, one has to wonder who else is talking to Mueller about it. Andrew Prokop identifies one possibility.

It’s also worth noting that Michael Flynn has been cooperating with Mueller’s investigators since early December, and we haven’t seen any of the fruits of his cooperation yet. Flynn was present in the meeting in which Kushner reportedly told Kislyak he wanted a backchannel. He was also present when Kushner and Bannon met MBZ. He may well have told Mueller why the Seychelles meeting happened.

What a lot of reporting on this story misses is that Flynn wasn’t just present at the meeting between Kushner and Kislyak when a back channel was discussed. He was actually the first one to broach the subject with the Russian ambassador.

Conversations between Flynn and Kislyak accelerated after the Nov. 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy…

The wording of the latest Washington Post story on this is interesting, and perhaps precise. They describe all this as “an effort to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin.” In other words, it wasn’t simply a matter of avoiding intelligence sources in the Obama administration during the transition. Trump associates were working from just after the election until days before the inauguration to set up this back channel line of communication between the Kremlin and the president.

What Mueller will be interested in is why the Trump administration would want to bypass this country’s national security apparatus in their conversations with Moscow. But what we also don’t know is whether or not they were successful. Did a sitting president actually have a secret back channel line of communication with the Kremlin that was beyond the purview of our intelligence services? That would give a whole new meaning to this administration’s so-called war with the “deep state.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.