The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that the Trump administration approached Blackwater founder and Trump shadow adviser Erik Prince about potentially buying a Ukrainian aerospace company that the U.S. government wants to prevent the Chinese government from acquiring. “Motor Sich is a leading maker of helicopter and airplane engines and the U.S. wants to scuttle its pending sale to a group of Chinese companies to keep Beijing from acquiring vital defense technology,” according to the report. “A U.S. government official sought out Mr. Prince in Washington earlier this year. Mr. Prince expressed interest in Motor Sich, as long as the company remained a Ukrainian entity and he could receive its client list, the U.S. official said.” Prince is an interesting choice if the White House wanted to prevent China from acquiring the firm. Prince’s latest venture, Frontier Services Group, is a Hong Kong-based company and largely controlled by the Chinese government’s powerful investment arm.
This story comes as BuzzFeed News published files from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, including dozens of pages of documents detailing some of Prince’s role during the Trump campaign and transition. These files were produced by the FBI as part of its interviews with former top White House adviser Steve Bannon.
The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill and Matthew Cole discussed all of these developments.
Jeremy Scahill: Just by way of context, Erik Prince, of course, comes from a really powerful family in the state of Michigan. His sister, Betsy DeVos, is married to Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway Corp. fortune, which is a multilevel marketing scheme. And those two families merged together and were the premier bank rollers of the radical religious right, as well as the Republican revolution that swept Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America to power in the early and mid-1990s.
Fast-forward past the Blackwater years, and Erik Prince running a mercenary company, to the end of Obama and the 2016 campaign kicking into gear. Erik Prince originally was in the Ted Cruz camp and then started to transition over to Donald Trump. This latest batch of documents that we have been able to read through because of Jason Leopold and BuzzFeed contains some pretty extensive notes and documents from interviews with Steve Bannon about Erik Prince’s role in the Trump campaign, and then ultimately during the transition period.
And what’s interesting, I think, to note is that Erik Prince’s connection to Trump world is multifaceted. You have the fact that Erik Prince and his family were close to Vice President Mike Pence when he was a member of Congress, and Prince and his mother had raised money for him. They were bundling money and raising money for Donald Trump when they eventually switched over from Ted Cruz to Donald Trump.
And then it gets us to where we are in these documents, where you have Erik Prince via his relationship with Steve Bannon, and the two of them, by Bannon’s admission, had known each other for eight or nine years when the Trump campaign had kicked into gear.
Erik Prince, of course, had been on Steve Bannon’s radio show on Breitbart many times, where he was already openly pitching a return to the glory years of the Phoenix program — the assassination program in Vietnam — and talking about how the U.S. needed to get back into the covert operations game in a very serious way.
And from the initial Bannon descriptions of Prince, it sounds like Erik Prince was coming up to the 14th floor in Trump Tower and essentially just wandering around and pitching ideas to people.
What’s your first assessment, Matthew, of the documents that we’re now reading about Erik Prince’s time wandering around Trump Tower and trying to play a role in the world of Donald Trump?
Matthew Cole: Well, I think it’s pretty clear that Erik’s description of himself and his connection to the Trump administration in his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee during the Russia investigation wildly downplayed his connection. I mean, he described himself under oath as having virtually no connection other than sending unsolicited policy memos and once or twice shaking Donald Trump’s hand at a campaign event. He really, really downplayed his connection.
And I think what we find from the FBI interviews with Bannon is that both before Trump won the election and then after the election, Erik Prince was all over the Trump campaign wherever he could [be]. Much of it was unsolicited, but he was allowed in. And I think what we see is that he starts there to become what — I think the only appropriate term is a “shadow adviser” to, first, the Trump campaign via Bannon and, later, [through] his relationship with Eric Trump and Don Jr. as, I think, hunting buddies.
JS: Well, let me just read that section from the FBI notes: “Bannon knew that Prince would go hunting with Eric Trump and Trump Jr. during the campaign. Prince might have met with Trump Jr. and Bannon remembered one time Trump Jr. may have walked Prince down” to the more secure level.
Let’s also remember that the Trump brothers like going and killing exotic animals or endangered species. Erik Prince and the Trump brothers: hunting buddies. But that doesn’t seem to be the primary connection for Erik Prince at Trump Tower, it may have helped him get in, but he was wandering around talking to the likes of Mike Flynn and Kellyanne Conway and [Sebastian] Gorka and maybe even Mike Pompeo.
MC: Well, I only bring up the sons to your point that it was multifaceted. There were multiple places and ways in which Erik was connecting with the Trump campaign and later with the president-elect in the transition. And one that you forgot is that his wife, Stacy — Erik’s wife, Stacy — is very close to Rebecca Mercer and the Mercers, of course, bankrolled — they are probably the single largest bank rollers of the Trump campaign and their win. And [they] had financed and backed Bannon. But they also had started with supporters of Cruz during the election until it became clear that Trump was going to win.
JS: Well, the Mercers, I think, were the ones that convinced Elsa Prince, Erik’s mother, and the real controller of the money in that family, to — and she was reluctant to do it — to get into Trump camp.
MC: Right. So, I think that what these [FBI] Bannon interviews show is that Erik’s involvement with, first, the campaign and, then, with the transition were quite extensive. What influence he had, that’s a debatable question. But two years ago, you and I reported the story of Erik trying to pitch Trump and the Trump administration on a private CIA that would work only for the director of the CIA and for Donald Trump, the president. And that original plan really snuck through.
They sold that in part to Don Jr. They were talking with everyone. They got meetings with Pompeo. They absolutely had meetings at the White House. But the way in which they got into Donald Trump’s ear on that one was through Don Jr.
So he has proven himself to be quite effective at getting his message across to the president of the United States through multiple avenues. And what these FBI interviews show is that, at least in 2016, he was aggressively working with Bannon to try to help the campaign wherever he could and where we’re at today where he is an informal, a shadow adviser to the White House, of which this administration has more than most, because it’s so unusual and unorthodox. It has many people like that, outside advisers who are unofficial carriers of a message to and from the president.
JS: You know, it is reminiscent in some [ways] of what we understand about how the Nixon White House operated, particularly when you’re talking about covert operations, that you had these shadowy figures, some of whom were part of the Watergate burglars, the “plumbers,” and others who were pitching a million ideas of how they wanted to kill Fidel Castro, invade Cuba, and if even one of their thousand crazy ideas landed, that was considered a victory for them.
In fact, Erik Prince has talked about how his father, who was a legitimately successful businessman, who built up a successful company and was an inventor — how, if one of his ideas out of 10,000 of them hit, that was considered a really solid idea. Erik Prince is now trying to do that in the realm of covert operations. You mentioned the privatized intelligence force that would allow Donald Trump to circumvent the “deep state” campaign against him. But also, Erik Prince’s privatization agenda, mercenaries to solve everything. In one of these memos, policy papers that Erik Prince wrote and then passed on to Bannon hoping it would get to Trump, he wants to privatize the entire Veterans Administration and the health care system for veterans.
MC: Yeah, I don’t think that there is any question that Erik Prince always sees — there’s not a scenario where Prince doesn’t see an opportunity to sell privatization of a known or accepted government function. And it’s for that reason, among others, that he has also had support for years from Dick Cheney, the former vice president under George W. Bush, and Erik, I understand, is still spending a lot of time with Cheney. And Erik Prince has that drive to privatize, to find ways to make a profit for a corporation, and promotes the idea that these proposals are making the government more efficient and saving money for the U.S. taxpayer. It’s mostly smoke and mirrors, but it is certainly their view of the free economy. And the idea that Prince, a former Navy SEAL, a son of a billionaire, would try to pitch the privatization of the VA, and not that the VA doesn’t have an enormous amount of problems, but he’s the ultimate definition of a hammer [to] which every problem looks like a nail. And that’s the service that he’s going to sell you. Like his father, he’d be happy if one of 10,000 works, because all of them provide some opportunity for Erik Prince to make a lot of money.
JS: Yeah. And if you go back and you look at some of the position papers that [Prince] passed along to the campaign on the issue of Syria and Iraq and ISIS, one thing that jumps out is Erik Prince says Iraq and Syria are finished as states and the next president could have a great opportunity to redraw the maps of the Middle East. And he talks about abolishing the Sykes-Picot agreement that Erik Prince, I think, rightly says was a remnant of a colonial agenda of European powers. But his solution is at one point describing Raqqa, the then capital of the ISIS so-called caliphate, he says we should we should unload on them with everything non-nuclear we have, including explosives, artillery, rockets, cluster bombs, et cetera, et cetera. Kill everything in every grid square surrounding the marines, the U.S. Marines are there, while also “flattening Dresden-style their caliphate capital of Raqqa, Syria. Nothing will be as demotivating for their recruiting efforts as well publicized video of total destruction of their forces. As gruesome as that may sound, they think with medieval perspective and you must give them a pounding they will understand.”
MC: You know, Erik’s ideology drives him like few that we’ve ever seen. I mean, he’s a unique American figure who has virtually no military experience — while he did serve and was a young officer in the Navy SEALs, he left after three or four years — [but] he served no time in battle. It’s one of the things that people who know him well always remark [on]: that what drives him more than anything is that the guy never got to fire a weapon on a battlefield. And likewise, he never got to command a unit, he never got to lead anyone into a conflict.
And for whatever reason, that drives him to where he wants to go. And so, he may … He’s not a dumb man. He does rightly point out that that the Sykes agreement was the vestige of a colonial era that divided up a region that had no bearing on the ethnic makeup of that geographic part of the Middle East.
But his solution is lunacy and betrays a total lack of understanding of the dynamics on the ground. That position paper, in fact, I read it closely. And one of the things that’s amazing about it is it really skims over the fact that the disaster in the Middle East that we currently see is being fed largely — not exclusively, but largely — by the war. [With] the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 [and] the removal of Saddam Hussein, Iran saw, for instance, an opportunity to gain influence in the Middle East and to push back against that the Arab world. And instead of talking about a sort of holistic, whole-of-government approach, the international community, [for] how to resolve the crisis in the Middle East, again, here’s the hammer, and the only solution is bomb everyone to smithereens, redraw the map like a new version of a colonial power.
All he’s describing is “well, those guys were the old one, here’s an opportunity for the president to be a new version of the colonial power.” And actually, in the three years that we’ve had President Trump, you can see why a message like that would be appealing to him. That is very appealing to him.
JS: It does seem from just from this first blush look at some of the raw documents from the FBI interviews with Steve Bannon that Erik Prince was not exactly truthful when he testified in front of Congress on these issues. And one of the documents that’s getting the most attention was that Erik Prince wrote another memo that he wanted [presented to] Trump, who he calls “Mr. T,” on Russian election influence issue. And Erik Prince starts this memo by saying, “It’s unclear to me if Russia is directly involved in attempting to influence the U.S. election,” but then he proposes that Donald Trump adopt a line and use it to attack Hillary Clinton by saying if Russia wants to influence the elections, because they know Hillary Clinton, they’re not afraid of her. They would prefer her to be president. And he ends this memo to Trump, Erik Prince does, by saying that Trump could say, “I am largely an unknown. Unknowns carry risk for our opponents.”
MC: You know, that memo to me, that piece of singular piece of advice to me, demonstrates how far off the deep end the people in and around this administration have gone that if you if you really look at that, what Prince has done there is adopt absolutely a Soviet era, Russian propaganda playbook, which is to say, “the cup that you see here on that table is, in fact, no cup at all. You know, don’t believe your lying eyes.”
At that moment in time, in which it was clear that whether there was any connection at all to the Trump campaign, that the Russians had been involved in some effort to influence the election, and again, separating whether or not they were successful, there really was very little question about that at that moment. But even if you were skeptical, the idea that you would take the basic facts, which were that Vladimir Putin and the government of Russia were extremely hostile to her because of her time as secretary of state — I mean, it’s not a disputed fact.
It was just basic things. And to say, “No, what the candidates should do is walk out there and tell the world that the sky that they see above them is, in fact, not blue.” And I was sort of just stunned at the willingness that Erik Prince would go down. And again, he was selling it to the right person, right? I mean, President Trump, both as a candidate and then in office, maybe his singular, most pronounced characteristic is saying things that are just simply untrue. Beginning with, of course, in the first day in office that his inauguration size was the greatest ever. And so, I was just stunned at how much Prince was sort of parroting this, you know, the “Evil Empire’s” playbook as someone who is a professed cold warrior who sort of longs for the era in which we were in a Cold War against the Evil Empire and could do all of these covert actions and paramilitary strikes to defeat the big bad Russian bear.
JS: Also this this week, on Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal published a story saying that Erik Prince is in discussions to purchase a Ukrainian aerospace manufacturer Motor Sich, and that this is a company that the U.S. has been trying to prevent China from buying. John Bolton, when he was national security adviser, and others, trying to pressure the Ukrainian government and this company not to sell to China. What is this about?
MC: Well, it’s not fully clear. It’s actually pretty confusing. I reached out to several of my sources this morning after I read the story, which was fantastic, and one of the immediate things that came back and it’s obvious is that Erik’s company, Frontier Services Group, is a Hong Kong- and Beijing-based Chinese company and the single largest investor in the company is the Chinese central government’s economic arm, their bank, CITIC. It’s their biggest investment arm.
And so, if FSG were to buy this company, which is one of the things that’s suggested in this article, ultimately China would own it anyway. And so, it’s very confusing. One thing we can see is Erik has an obsession with planes and aviation, and he always has since he was a child, and he has longingly looked at the Russian company Antonov and Russian, Soviet-era aviation hardware and software.
So it’s not totally surprising. It’s just really surprising that the administration sort of urged him to take a look at this company and buy it. I don’t know how it would work. I think it’s clear that there are more questions than there are answers. But if you needed a sign that Erik Prince is — despite what would appear to be having misled the House Intelligence Committee, and for which they sent to the Department of Justice a [criminal] referral — he seems to be in very good standing with this White House even today. And it probably speaks to the fact that, again, he’s a shadow adviser who, when they need a favor, they will turn to. And in exchange, you have to ask yourself what favors the government is doing for Erik Prince.