Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the most dogged opponent of Blackwater founder Erik Prince in the U.S. Congress, is blasting the Trump administration for using Prince as a shadow emissary for the White House. “He is the kind of unvetted, unscrupulous person that seems to fit very nicely, especially into the kinds of operations that they want done,” Schakowsky said in an exclusive interview for the Intercepted podcast. “This is exactly the kind of person who should be excluded from having anything to do with our government, covert or out in public.”
Schakowsky was responding to reporting by The Intercept and the Washington Post that Prince is serving as an unofficial adviser and emissary for Trump and his team. The Post reported on Monday that Prince and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, arranged a meeting in the Seychelles islands “to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump.” That followed an earlier meeting in December 2016 with Sheikh al-Nahyan, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, and retired Gen. Michael Flynn in New York.
Last year, The Intercept reported on Prince’s new company, Frontier Services Group, which is based in Hong Kong and has deep ties to the Chinese government. BuzzFeed’s Aram Roston also reported that Prince “has been offering his military expertise to support Chinese government objectives and setting up two Blackwater-style training camps in China.” Roston suggested that Prince’s latest moves “could also risk violating U.S. law, which prohibits the export of military services or equipment to China.”
In January, six days after the Seychelles meeting, The Intercept reported that Prince was informally advising Trump. Prince’s wife posted pictures from inside Trump headquarters of Trump and Mike Pence watching the election results. Prince contributed at least $250,000 to Trump’s campaign through a political action committee run by billionaire Robert Mercer. Prince’s mother also contributed heavily to the PAC. Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos is Trump’s education secretary. “The whole family is quite troubling,” said Rep. Schakowsky, “and now is part of the inner circle, the ruling party, the people with the most influence in the world, in charge of this administration.”
On Monday, the Post reported that “the UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would likely require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions.” The paper stated: “Though Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign or transition team, he presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump to high-ranking Emiratis involved in setting up his meeting with the Putin confidant.”
A Prince spokesperson told the Post: “Erik had no role on the transition team. This is a complete fabrication. The meeting had nothing to do with President Trump. Why is the so-called under-resourced intelligence community messing around with surveillance of American citizens when they should be hunting terrorists?”
Prince moved to Abu Dhabi in 2010, amid major scandals involving Blackwater. He built up a private security company there with the support of Sheikh al-Nahyan. Prince’s connections to the royal family in Abu Dhabi combined with their view of Iran as a threat helps explain why such a meeting would be viewed as valuable for the Trump camp. The Trump administration is littered with appointees and advisers who are radical hawks on Iran.
Prince has had a long relationship with Vice President Pence and has contributed to his political campaigns for years. As head of the Republican Study Group in Congress, Pence helped organize a Capitol Hill reception for Prince in 2007 after Blackwater water operatives gunned down 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.
Prince is also extremely close to Trump’s consigliere Steve Bannon and did numerous interviews with Breitbart over the years. Last July, Prince told Bannon, then the head of Breitbart News, that the Trump administration should recreate a version of the Phoenix Program, the CIA assassination ring that operated during the Vietnam War, to fight ISIS. Such a program, Prince said, could kill or capture “the funders of Islamic terror and that would even be the wealthy radical Islamist billionaires funding it from the Middle East, and any of the other illicit activities they’re in.”
In another Breitbart interview, Prince endorsed some of Trump’s overtures to Russia, saying: “Think about it: If FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, can deal with Stalin to defeat German fascism in World War II, certainly the United States of America could work with Putin to defeat Islamic fascism. We don’t have to agree with the Russians on everything, or even on a lot, but we can at least agree that crushing ISIS in the Middle East is a very good idea.”
Schakowsky said she wants more details on the nature of Prince’s meeting with a Russian associate of Putin and clarity on his supposedly unofficial role in the Trump camp. She added, however, that the investigation should be broader in scope. “I feel that the American people, as much as they may be enjoying this unfolding mystery — this kind of House of Cards that’s real — that there’s this really, really disturbing quality to it. I think more and more American are disturbed, and, yes, its been focusing on Russia, but this with Erik Prince goes way beyond that, and I think more significantly beyond that.”
In 2010, amid public scandals and government investigations, Prince began to sell off his Blackwater empire. Using new vehicles, he continued to engage in controversial private security ventures, including operations in Somalia and the United Arab Emirates. Eventually, the former Navy SEAL and self-proclaimed American patriot began building close business ties with powerful individuals connected to the Chinese Communist Party. In January 2014, Prince officially went into business with the Chinese government’s largest state-owned investment firm, the Citic Group, and founded Frontier Services Group, which is based in Hong Kong. Citic Group is the company’s single largest investor, and two of FSG’s board members are Chinese nationals.
In March 2016, The Intercept reported that Prince was “under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and other federal agencies for attempting to broker military services to foreign governments and possible money laundering.” The report, which I wrote with Matthew Cole, asserted:
What began as an investigation into Prince’s attempts to sell defense services in Libya and other countries in Africa has widened to a probe of allegations that Prince received assistance from Chinese intelligence to set up an account for his Libya operations through the Bank of China. The Justice Department, which declined to comment for this article, is also seeking to uncover the precise nature of Prince’s relationship with Chinese intelligence.
Prince, through his lawyer, said at the time that Prince had not been informed of a federal investigation and had not offered any defense services in Libya. The lawyer called the money-laundering allegations “total bullshit.”
Over the past three years, Prince has given interviews and speeches describing his vision of FSG. “This is not a patriotic endeavor of ours,” Prince said of his new company. “We’re here to build a great business and make some money doing it.” China, he said, “has the appetite to take frontier risk, that expeditionary risk of going to those less-certain, less-normal markets and figuring out how to make it happen.”
The Intercept also reported on Prince’s effort to modify crop dusters into paramilitary aircraft for use in small wars in South Sudan and elsewhere. “This is a mercenary that liked to disguise himself during the Iraq war as some kind of uber patriot of the United States of America,” said Rep. Schakowsky. “Well it seems he’s given up that façade, working with the Chinese, the Sudanese, and now, we find out facilitating backchannels to Russia.”
Schakowsky said that the U.S. intelligence community should provide Congress with answers to an array of questions on Prince. “If they have been monitoring, as it seems, Erik Prince for a long time, what have they found? What are the things he is engaged in? What are the things the American people need to know about his activities and how can we disassociate ourselves from him? And how can he be held accountable by the United States for some of the activities he’s been engaged in?”