An August 2016 meeting in which a representative for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates offered assistance to the Trump presidential campaign are being focused on by special counsel Robert Mueller, according to a recent report. The circumstances of the meeting raise the possibility that foreign governments in the Middle East illegally influenced the U.S. election.
The meeting was arranged, according to the New York Times, by Erik Prince, former head of the private security firm Blackwater and brother of Betsy DeVos, now Secretary of Education. It also involved Donald Trump Jr., a representative for Saudi Arabia and the UAE named George Nader, and a social media executive named Joel Zamel.
According to multiple involved sources speaking to the Times, Zamel came to the meeting with a plan for a covert campaign to use thousands of fake social media accounts to promote the Trump candidacy, drawn up by a company that he founded called Psy-Group. Nader made a payment of as much as $2 million to Zamel after Trump’s election win. The reason for that payment is unknown, and lawyers for both Donald Trump Jr. and Joel Zamel denied in statements to the Times that any social media work was contracted as a result of the August meeting.
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However, members of the Trump administration and its associates have frequently changed their stories or revised official filings about dealings with foreign nationals, giving such public denials little weight. And, according to the Times, both Zamel and Nader had further contacts or meetings with the Trump team.
If a payment for election services came from foreign powers or individuals, it would be a violation of campaign finance law, and concealing it could amount to obstruction of justice. The Mueller team is questioning witnesses and involved persons, and Nader is reportedly cooperating with the investigation.
News of the meeting substantially reframes the emerging picture of Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Zamel and Nader both have ties to Russia: one of Zamel’s companies, for instance, has reportedly worked for Oleg Deripaska, a Putin-linked oligarch closely tied to former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, and recently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury.
But the bigger question is whether the Trump campaign presented an open door for foreign governments seeking to influence the candidate on important issues. In this case, the Times cites UAE and Saudi opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, which lifted economic sanctions on that country in exchange for a halt to its nuclear weapons program. Iran, a semi-democratic theocracy dominated by Shia Islam, is a bitter regional rival of the absolute monarchy that rules in predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration has demonstrated sustained warmth toward Saudi rulers, and dramatically withdrew from the Iran deal in early May.