Just when it seemed that the web of potential ties between President Trump and Russia couldn’t get any more tangled, Erik Prince entered.
Who’s Erik Prince, you ask? He’s a onetime navy seal who now travels the world as a military-expert-for-hire. And that’s just the first line in a rich biography. He’s also founder of the scandal-plagued private security company Blackwater, scion of a wealthy auto-parts distributor, brother of secretary of education Betsy Devos, big-dollar donor to the Trump campaign, and leader of a company that trains private mercenary forces for foreign governments.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that this same Erik Prince apparently visited the Seychelles islands in January to meet with a key Putin ally, as part of an effort to establish back-channel communication between the White House and Moscow — a meeting arranged by leaders of the United Arab Emirates, where Prince currently lives
The exact nature of the discussion is unclear, though it’s likely to have centered around Iran — with Prince possibly tasked with testing whether it might be possible to break up the alliance between Russia and Iran.
Here’s what you need to know.
Who’s Erik Prince?
Prince is an infamous figure from the Bush years who seems ready to reprise his role for the Trump era.
He founded the military contracting firm blackwater, which made its name providing crowd control and security services during the Iraq War. Eventually, though, this brand of quasi-military work created problems for Blackwater--most vividly in a 2007 incident where blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqis after opening fire at a crowded Baghdad intersection.
Public outrage over that incident — and others — ultimately brought down Blackwater, and Prince himself left the US amid rising legal troubles. But he never gave up his dream of providing military services on contract.
From his new perch in the UAE, Prince has become something of a military freelancers. He helped train a special operations force for the UAE government, designed to act against terrorists and quash internal dissent. And he’s also allegedly helped create a paramilitary group to fight Somali pirates.
When undertaking these kinds of activities, Prince is walking a very fine legal line. US citizens aren’t allowed to train foreign military forces without permission from the state department. And while Prince has been smart about picking his partners and shielding his involvement, reports suggest he may already be under investigation for offering military services in Libya (and for money laundering.)
Still, his name carries a lot of influence inside the US. Prince made regular appearances on Stephen Bannon’s radio show and has been an informal Trump advisor from the early days of the Trump campaign.
What’s more, his father Edgar Prince was a successful entrepreneur and a major donor to conservative causes. Prince’s sister, meanwhile, is the current Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, with her own commitment to privatizing government services — only for schools rather than armies.
Why did Prince meet with Russians in the Seychelles?
Details remain murky, but Iran was likely among the top-line topics. Here’s the rough reason:
• The Russians have a good relationship with Iran, including working together to bolster Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
• Trump has taken a hard line on Iran, even as he pursues better relations with Russia
• The UAE isn’t overly concerned about Russia, but does fear rising Iranian influence
One way to square this circle would be for the US and the UAE to convince Russia to drop its alliance with Iran — possibly in exchange for sanctions relief. That could open a path to broader cooperation between the US and Russia, while shifting the balance of middle eastern power towards Sunni nations like UAE and Saudi Arabia.
In such a negotiation, Prince is well positioned to serve as emissary. He has strong connections with all involved, and a reputation for managing secret diplomacy.
As for why they picked the Seychelles as their destination, it wasn’t just the lovely scenery. The seychelles is renowned as a favorite spot for secret activity, especially tax evasion. And it’s popular with russian and emirati elite.
What does all this mean for Trump?
Secret meetings with Putin allies in the Seychelles certainly has an air of the untoward. And the January timing is unfortunate, since Trump had not yet taken the oath of office — which means he wasn’t supposed to be managing US diplomacy.
But there’s nothing necessarily wrong with establishing back channel connections with foreign governments. It’s a common part of the art of statecraft. Obama relied on back channels as part of his early outreach to Iran in 2009, just as Nixon had during his efforts to open up relations with China.
But the very fact that the FBI seems to have found out about this back channel meeting — and leaked details to the press — points to the broader problem. Everything about Trump’s Russia policy is now suspect, because it slots too neatly into the list of largely-unexplained contacts between Trump’s trusted staff members and Russian officials.
Adding an explosive figure like Prince to the story only increases suspicion, making what could easily be a benign effort at delicate diplomacy look like another scandalous chapter in the ongoing saga of Trump’s ties with Russia.
Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz