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Byron York: In Trump-Russia probe, what's with that meeting in the Seychelles?

Blackwater founder Erik Prince spent hours, without a lawyer, answering questions from the House Intelligence Committee about a meeting he had with a Russian in the Seychelles. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

It's become a hot topic in coverage of the Trump-Russia investigation: A Trump supporter met with a Russian in the Seychelles in January 2017, and something consequential may or may not have happened.

The Trump supporter was Erik Prince, the former Navy SEAL best known as the founder of Blackwater, the security firm that helped guard U.S. forces and installations in Iraq. Nearly a year ago, in a story headlined "Blackwater founder held secret Seychelles meeting to establish Trump-Putin back channel," the Washington Post reported that Prince traveled to the Indian Ocean islands on Jan. 11, 2017, just nine days before the Trump inauguration. Once there, he attended a "secret meeting" with "a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin," arranged by the United Arab Emirates as part of "an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump." The Post reported Prince told top Emiratis that he "was authorized to act as an unofficial surrogate for the president-elect." The paper attributed the story to "U.S., European and Arab officials."

Prince, who did in fact attend a meeting in the Seychelles at that time, denied being a representative of the Trump transition. He also denied the whole "back channel" story. On Nov. 30 of last year, he spent hours, without a lawyer, answering questions from the House Intelligence Committee. He did so on the condition that a transcript of the session be made public.

Prince told House investigators that a representative of the Emiratis got in touch with him to ask him to come to the Seychelles to meet top officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, known as MBZ. Prince, who said he was focused on the oil and minerals trade, told investigators he was hoping for some business. "I'll be direct about it," he told the House. "I think the Obama administration went out of their way to tarnish my ability to do business in the Middle East, and, with a different administration in town, they probably figured that the downdraft wasn't present any more. So I'd been wanting to see [MBZ] for some time."

Prince said he met for about an hour with MBZ and other officials at a Seychelles hotel. At the end of the meeting, according to Prince, the Emiratis "mentioned a guy I should meet who was also in town to see them, a Kirill Dmitriev, from Russia, who ran some sort of hedge fund."

"It's not like I was at a meeting and they invited this Russian guy to the meeting," Prince explained. "It was a matter of, 'Hey, while you're here, there's a Russian guy that we've done some business with in the past, and it'd be interesting for you to meet him." Prince said he met with Dmitriev later at the hotel bar for about 20 or 30 minutes. "We chatted on topics ranging from oil and commodity prices to how much his country wished for resumption of normal trade relations with the — relationship with the USA," Prince said.

And that was it, Prince told the House. He made no arrangements with the Russian, was never in touch with him again, and didn't get any business with the Emiratis, for that matter.

The story died down, for a while. But now, the Seychelles meeting is back in the news after the New York Times reported that George Nader, a little-known Lebanese-American businessman who does business with the Emirates, has told Trump-Russia special counsel Robert Mueller that he, Nader, attended the Seychelles meeting. The paper said Mueller was investigating whether Nader helped the Emirates funnel illegal foreign money into "the president's political efforts."

In addition, the Post reported that Mueller 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." The "one of its participants" reference was to Prince and his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.

Much cable news coverage and discussion followed, focused on the purported "back channel." "The big question is whether or not there was an effort to create this back-channel discussion between the Russians and the incoming Trump administration," reported CNN.

The story baffled some Republicans who have been following the Trump-Russia affair, for two reasons. One, the core question of the investigation is whether the Trump campaign and Russia colluded to influence the 2016 election. The Seychelles meeting took place on Jan. 11, 2017, more than two months after the election. One thing that is certain is that the participants were not colluding to influence the 2016 election.

Prince himself wondered about that when he met with the House committee. "Here's what I don't understand about why I'm here," he told the Republicans and Democrats who had gathered to question him. "If there's all this rightful concern if there was actual collusion between the campaign and the Russian government, this meeting didn't happen until almost two months — more than two months — after the election. So if there was all this collusion, why would there even need to be any other follow-up meetings? So I don't get that, timeline-wise."

The second reason Republicans were baffled is that even if Prince were representing the Trump transition, and even if he were trying to establish a back channel with the Russians — two points Prince vehemently denies — there would be nothing illegal or improper about the incoming Trump administration setting up a channel, back or otherwise, to speak to a foreign country, including Russia. At the time of the meeting, Donald Trump was nine days away from becoming president. His administration-in-waiting was trying to put together policy on a zillion issues, not least of which was Russia. There is nothing improper about an incoming administration being in touch with representatives of a foreign government. With Russia specifically, maybe that was a good idea or maybe it wasn't, but there was no impropriety in doing it.

I asked three Republican lawmakers and a longtime GOP foreign policy hand whether setting up a channel of communications would have been improper during the transition.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with it that I'm aware of," said the foreign policy hand. "Whether a back channel to Russia of the kind that's been reported makes any sense at all is a different question. But In terms of having back channels, they exist. With many, it's not our government that's trying to establish a back channel; it's some operator who wants to say he has a back channel. A lot of quote-unquote 'back channels' are efforts by people who would like to be influential in a new administration."

"Back channels exist," he continued. "That's a fact, and they are not illegal. The notion that nine days before taking office the administration is supposed to be sitting in a closet somewhere doing nothing in ridiculous."

"That's basically right," added one lawmaker. "Plus, it would seem to contradict allegations of collusion — why have a secret Seychelles meeting to 'establish a back channel' if you just colluded in the campaign?"

"There's nothing wrong with that," said another lawmaker about the "back channel."

"I don't see it being illegal, certainly," added yet another lawmaker. "It might not even be a bad idea. But I don't know how it could be the focus of anything that Mueller could be interested in."

On the other hand, Mueller could be interested in some other, unknown aspect of the meeting — some reports seemed to suggest the interest might be whether Prince lied to the House. Or perhaps whether Nader helped move Emirati money into Trump's "political efforts," as the Times said.

Or Mueller might not be terribly interested in the meeting at all. He could be looking into things for reasons that turn out to be relatively unimportant.

A final issue: During his House interview, Prince made clear that he believes he was the target of U.S. surveillance and improper unmasking. He believes that at least one of the foreigners in the Seychelles was under electronic surveillance — signals intelligence, known as SIGINT — which caught Prince's participation in recorded conversations as well. Prince alleged that he was then improperly unmasked, possibly by then-national security adviser Susan Rice, and the information leaked to the press.

"Unless the Washington Post has somehow miraculously recruited the bartender of a hotel in the Seychelles, the only way that's happening is through SIGINT," Prince said. "I know it came from SIGINT. And we'll leave it at that."

It's not publicly known if Prince is right. If he is, such a leak would be a very serious matter, on a par with the Obama administration's leak of the highly classified intercept of Michael Flynn's wiretapped conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The one thing that is clear in all this is that the breathless "back channel" coverage doesn't tell us much about what actually happened, and what it means. As with so much else in the Trump-Russia discussion, there's more confusion than clarity about that meeting in the Seychelles.