Did Erik Prince perjure himself in front of Congress?
The founder and former CEO of the notorious private security firm Blackwater — and younger brother of hapless Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — is a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump. Prince donated $250,000 to help the president get elected in 2016.
Since the election, however, his ties to the scandal-plagued Trump campaign have come under increased scrutiny. Prince has been questioned by special counsel Robert Mueller, as part of the ongoing investigation into alleged collusion with Russia, and even provided Mueller “total access to his phone and computer.”
Speaking under oath before the House Intelligence Committee in November 2017, Prince denied any formal connections to the Trump campaign, saying that he “played no official, or really, unofficial role.”
Yet, in May 2018, the New York Times reported that Prince had “arranged” a meeting in Trump Tower in August 2016, three months before the election, attended by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son; Stephen Miller, then a senior adviser to the Trump campaign; George Nader, a convicted pedophile and an adviser to the United Arab Emirates; and Joel Zamel, an Israeli social media expert.
In an exclusive interview with me at the Oxford Union, for my Al Jazeera English show “Head to Head,” Prince confirmed the 2016 meeting at Trump Tower for the first time. He told me it was about “Iran policy.” However, he then proceeded to misrepresent his 2017 testimony to Congress — and contradicted himself in the process.
Which raises the question: What does he have to hide?
Sitting across from the 49-year-old Prince, a former Navy Seal who hails from a hard-right, billionaire family, can be unnerving. He tends not to smile. He has a cold, unbending stare that rarely betrays any emotion. And he likes to speak in short, sharp sentences.
For much of the hourlong interview, in front of a 300-strong audience in Oxford, I pressed Prince on Blackwater’s murderous record in Iraq, his own racist remarks about Iraqi “barbarians,” and his latest “garbage” proposal to privatize the NATO-led war in Afghanistan. (The Pentagon isn’t keen on the latter, though national security adviser John Bolton might be interested.)
Prince, I discovered, seems to have a Trumpian relationship with the truth. He tried to suggest that a car bomb exploded at Baghdad’s Nisour Square “five minutes” before Blackwater guards shot and killed 14 innocent Iraqis on September 16, 2007. I reminded him that there was no such explosion at Nisour Square. He denied that his current company, Frontier Services Group, is planning to build a “training facility” in Xinjiang, China, where more than a million Uighur Muslims are being held in Chinese detention camps, dismissing a press release confirming the news as a mistranslation from Mandarin. I had to inform him that the press release was issued by his own company, FSG, in English.
Toward the end of the interview, I raised the issue of “Russiagate” and the special counsel’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Putin government. Prince was grilled by the House Intelligence Committee over a secret meeting he had in the Seychelles with Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian oligarch described as a “messenger” to Putin by Prince’s friends in the UAE; the meeting was on January 11, 2017, nine days before Trump’s inauguration. “It lasted one beer,” he told me flippantly, in reference to the Dmitriev meeting, which has been described by U.S., European, and Arab officials as “an apparent effort to establish a backchannel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump.”
But why didn’t Prince tell members of Congress about his other secret meeting, in Trump Tower in August 2016? Especially if it was about a sensitive foreign policy issue like Iran?
“I don’t believe I was asked that question,” he replied.
Not true. I reminded him that he had been asked by a member of the House Intelligence Committee whether he had any “formal communications or contact with the campaign.”
The Blackwater founder then switched tack. He “did” inform the committee about the meeting, Prince told me. Why wasn’t it in the transcript of the hearing then, I countered? “I don’t know if they got the transcript wrong,” he said. Later in the interview, in response to a question from the audience, he doubled down: “Not all the discussion that day was transcribed, and that’s a fact.”
Got that? First, he said he wasn’t asked; then he said he told them about it; then he claimed that they made a mistake with the transcript; then he claimed that it was said off the record.
My understanding — based on a conversation between one of my Al Jazeera English colleagues and a staffer connected to the Intelligence Committee, and also based on public comments made by Rep. Eric Swalwell about Prince being “not truthful” with Congress — is that the off-the-record sections of the transcript contain zero references to the Trump Tower meeting, which was later revealed by the New York Times and (reluctantly) confirmed to me by Prince on “Head to Head.”
This is a major problem for this major ally of the president. It is, of course, a crime to lie under oath; it is also a crime to lie to a congressional committee, whether you are under oath or not. “Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell,” Vox notes, “was convicted of lying to a Senate committee during the Watergate scandal.”
So I couldn’t help but ask the defensive Prince: Did he not worry that Mueller might send him to prison for not telling the truth, as he did with Gen. Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, and others?
“Nope,” he replied, giving me that dead-eyed stare once again, “not at all.”
This is far from over, however. Earlier this week, the House Judiciary Committee under its new Democratic chair, Rep. Jerry Nadler, sent out requests for documents to “81 agencies, individuals, and other entities tied to the president” — including Prince — as part of its sweeping investigation into alleged corruption and abuse of power by the president and his associates. In December 2018, Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee told the Daily Beast that the former Blackwater boss had been “discredited” and that they planned to recall him before their panel “even if we have to subpoena him.”
Will Prince have better answers for them than he had for me?
The former Navy Seal, lest we forget, has made plenty of enemies over the course of his career in private security and his role in the U.S. conservative movement. Hawkish Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham mocked his proposal to privatize the war in Afghanistan as “something that would come from a bad soldier of fortune novel.” Fellow mercenary Sean McFate dismissed Prince as an “amateur” with a “dangerous” plan. The former Blackwater CEO has also been denounced as a “war criminal” (Code Pink), a “Christian supremacist” (The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill), and a “super mercenary” (Rep. Jan Schakowsky).
Remember: The authorities famously got mob boss Al Capone on charges of tax evasion. Will they end up getting “super mercenary” Erik Prince not for alleged war crimes, money-laundering, or sanctions-busting but for … perjury?