Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI)Director Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Commerce, Justice, Science,...
Brendan Smialowski

In Russia probe, Mueller examines infamous Seychelles meeting

The first report about Trump World seeking backchannel communications with Russia came nearly a year ago. The Washington Post  reported last May that Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, and then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak had a private meeting in early December – during the Trump presidential transition process – at Trump Tower in New York.

At the meeting, Kushner reportedly “discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring.” (That didn’t work: Kislyak shared Kushner’s offer with his superiors in Russia, and those communications were intercepted by U.S. intelligence officials.)

The Rachel Maddow Show, 3/7/18, 9:23 PM ET

Pursuit of Kremlin link by Trump backer eyed by Mueller: WaPo

Sari Horwitz, national reporter for The Washington Post, talks with Ari Melber about Trump backer Erik Prince trying to set up a back channel of communication with the Kremlin at a secret Seychelles meeting with a Russian official close to Vladimir Putin,
And now we’re learning about another related effort. The Washington Post moved the ball forward overnight with this report:

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.

In January 2017, Erik Prince, the founder of the private security company Blackwater, met with a Russian official close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and later described the meeting to congressional investigators as a chance encounter that was not a planned discussion of U.S.-Russia relations.

A witness cooperating with Mueller has told investigators the meeting was set up in advance so that a representative of the Trump transition could meet with an emissary from Moscow to discuss future relations between the countries, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

If you saw Rachel’s segment on Tuesday, or Ari’s report last night, you know the cooperating witness is Lebanese-American businessman George Nader, who’s proving to be a key player in this story. It was Nader who not only attended the pre-inaugural Seychelles meeting, he also helped organize it.

And to fully appreciate Nader’s significance, note that he’s now a cooperating witness for the special counsel’s office, and someone who’s delivered grand jury testimony.

As for the Post’s latest report, it points to potential trouble for Erik Prince, a major Trump donor and the founder of the controversial Blackwater security firm, who told congressional investigators the Seychelles meeting had nothing to do with the Trump transition team. There’s now reason to believe otherwise.

And then, of course, there’s this: “While Mueller is probing the circumstances of the Seychelles meeting, he is also more broadly examining apparent efforts by the Trump transition team to create a back channel for secret talks between the new administration and the Kremlin.”

It’s difficult to think of a benign explanation for Team Trump seeking private, pre-inaugural chats with Russian officials through unofficial channels.

Circling back to a point we discussed last year, I imagine some of the White House’s allies will again make the case that backchannel communications between the United States and other countries – friend and foe alike – have been common for many years, so there’s no reason to be alarmed by these reports. That defense doesn’t make sense in this case: backchannel communications are supposed to involve using diplomatic intermediaries to pursue U.S. foreign policy, not a presidential transition team seeking secret discussions away from U.S. detection.

To date, no one has been able to explain, even on a theoretical level, why Team Trump would seek a secret communications avenue with Moscow that relevant U.S. agencies couldn’t monitor.

Donald Trump, Russia and Scandals

In Russia probe, Mueller examines infamous Seychelles meeting