By Karoun Demirjian,
Erik Prince, a supporter of the Trump presidential campaign and founder of the security firm Blackwater, confirmed to House investigators Thursday that he met with a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin while in the Seychelles earlier this year, according to multiple people familiar with the interview.
Under questioning, Prince told members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that he had met Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, during a secret Jan. 11 meeting in the Seychelles brokered by the United Arab Emirates as part of an apparent attempt to set up backchannel communications between then-President-elect Donald Trump and Moscow.
Dmitriev was first identified as Prince’s Russian contact in the Seychelles by the Intercept earlier this week.
The admission to investigators that he met with Dmitriev is a turnaround for Prince, who initially refused through a spokesman to identify the Russian with whom he had met, and later said he couldn’t remember his name.
He denied to House investigators that he was representing the Trump transition team during the Seychelles meeting, according to people who participated in the interview. They said Prince insisted the meeting took place over a beer and lasted less than an hour.
The full transcript of Prince’s interview is expected to be released within three days, according to committee leaders.
Prince stopped to speak with reporters on his way out of the interview Thursday, saying that he was merely a “donor” and an “interested voter” when it came to the Trump campaign. He also complained that the Intelligence Committee’s interview had been a “meaningless fishing expedition.”
“Congressman Schiff should apologize for wasting all of our time,” Prince said as he departed the interview, referring to the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff.
Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), a committee member helping Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.) run its Russia probe, cautioned against taking Prince’s admission that he met with a Russian as a sign he was meeting Russians over matters related to the Kremlin or anything political. Rooney stressed that Prince’s international business interests gave him plenty of other reasons to meet with Russians and Emiratis. Since selling Blackwater, Prince has continued to work in the private paramilitary contracting business, with deals across the Middle East and Asia.
But Dmitriev is no ordinary Russian businessman. The Russian government is the sole shareholder of the investment fund that Dmitriev runs, and both he and the fund’s board are appointed by and answer to Putin.
While Prince never worked as an official member of the Trump campaign or transition team, he has close ties to many current and former members of the president’s inner circle. Prince has appeared frequently on the conservative media outlet Breitbart’s radio and website, which is run by former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon. Prince’s family gave over $10 million to GOP candidates and PACs in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and his sister, Betsy DeVos, currently serves in the Trump administration as the secretary of education.
Prince is also the second person close to Trump to have met with the head of a Russian investment bank in the weeks between Trump winning the 2016 U.S. presidential election and being inaugurated into the White House. In early December, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner met with Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank, a Russian government-owned bank that also works to advance Russian interests through investments. A representative of the bank to the United States was accused of espionage in 2015, and Gorkov was trained in the academy of the Russian FSB, or Federal Security Service, the country’s domestic intelligence successor to the KGB.
During the same period, Kushner also approached then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak about setting up a secret, secure communications channel between the Trump transition team and the Russian government, using Russia’s diplomatic facilities. Kislyak did not take him up on the suggestion.