Report: Blackwater founder secretly met with Putin associate to establish Trump-Moscow backchannel link
Nine days before President Trump's inauguration, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi helped arrange a clandestine meeting in the Seychelles islands between Erik Prince, the founder of the security firm Blackwater and a major Trump supporter, and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin, in an apparent attempt to establish a backchannel conduit between Putin and Trump, several U.S., European, and Arab officials told The Washington Post.
The Abu Dhabi prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, agreed to broker the meeting because the United Arab Emirates, like the U.S., wants Russia to cool its relationship with Iran, officials said. Prince, who did not have a formal role with the Trump campaign or transition team, approached al-Nahyan about setting up the meeting, saying he was an unofficial Trump envoy, The Post reports. The crown prince suggested holding it in the Seychelles for privacy. While the meeting was considered positive by the UAE and Russia, they opted not to arrange any other summits between Putin's friend, who has not been identified, and Prince because of the political risk, officials said.
Prince is the brother of Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, and he regularly appeared on a radio program hosted by Stephen Bannon, Trump's chief strategist. He gave $250,000 to Trump's campaign. Blackwater became famous during the Iraq War, when guards from the firm were convicted of killing Iraqis in a public square in 2007, and Prince later sold the company. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the administration is "not aware of any meetings and Erik Prince had no role in the transition," while a testy spokesman for Prince told The Post 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?" Catherine Garcia
Along with 13 Russian nationals, Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team targeted three Russian organizations in the indictment announced Friday. Among them was a group called the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which The Wall Street Journal reports operated like "a propaganda startup," complete "with finance and graphics departments, performance targets, and a sophisticated social-media strategy designed to gain maximum attention."
The IRA's troll factory operated with the precision of, well, a factory, the Journal story says. "Operational goals were subject to internal audits," and messaging was tightly policed. The monthly budget was about $1.25 million, money spent refining online targeting to increase engagement with social media users who believed they were talking to fellow Americans.
But the action wasn't all online. The IRA used its digital reach to "organize flash-mobs in Florida," to "pay a U.S. resident to dress up like Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform at a West Palm Beach rally," and to "promote several pro-Trump rallies." Read the Journal's full report here. Bonnie Kristian
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Saturday he wants to "create an environment" conducive to talks between Seoul and Pyongyang, but that a "consensus is starting to build that there's also a need for talks between the United States and North Korea." In the absence of those negotiations, Moon seemed cautious about moving forward with unilateral conversations that could anger Washington, South Korea's most powerful ally.
He declined to formally accept the invitation to talks extended by Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, while she visited the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this month. "Let's not get too far ahead," Moon said. "There are high expectations and our hearts seem to be getting impatient." Bonnie Kristian
Following Friday's indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Saturday "the evidence is now incontrovertible" that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election. McMaster's statement stands in sharp contrast to President Trump's Friday claim that "results of the election were not impacted" by Russia's "anti-U.S. campaign."
Meanwhile, White House representative Raj Shah mostly echoed Trump on Fox News Friday evening. He argued Russian "efforts were about sowing confusion in the electoral process and undermining the next president, not about supporting one candidate over the other." Mueller's indictment specifically accused its targets of conspiring to "defraud the United States," including by "supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump."
McMaster was speaking at the Munich Security Conference in Germany when he made his remarks. Also there was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who declined to comment on the indictment. "You can publish anything and we can see those indictments multiplying," Lavrov said. "Until we see the facts everything else is just blabber." Bonnie Kristian
Turkey has denied allegations that it used a chemical weapon on a Kurdish village in Syria on Friday. The accusations came from Syrian Kurdish fighters as well as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group. Both said six people suffered breathing trouble and other gas attack symptoms.
"These are baseless accusations," an unnamed Turkish official told Reuters. "Turkey never used chemical weapons. We take utmost care about civilians."
The allegations may further complicate U.S.-Turkish relations. The two nations are NATO allies, but while Washington has partnered with the Kurds to fight the Islamic State, Ankara considers them terrorists because of their ties to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. Bonnie Kristian
A 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the Pacific coast of Mexico Friday, leaving about one million homes and businesses without power.
No one was killed by the initial quake, but 13 people died and several more were injured when a military helicopter crashed onto two vehicles while surveying the damage. Mexico's interior minister and the governor of the state of Oaxaca were both in the helicopter when it went down, but neither was injured.
Friday's earthquake was unusually long, and it was followed by 225 aftershocks. It comes less than half a year after a September quake killed more than 300 people in Mexico City and surrounding areas. Many Mexico City residents were heard repeating, "Oh God, not again," while Friday's tremors hit.
This is a breaking news story and has been updated throughout. Bonnie Kristian
President Trump traveled to Parkland, Florida, Friday evening to visit victims and first responders of Wednesday's shooting at a local high school which left 17 people dead. He first went to Broward Health North Hospital with first lady Melania Trump, posing for photos with medical staff, one patient, and her family.
Trump also stopped by the Broward County Sheriff's office. "What a job you've done," he said to various law enforcement officers he met. "You deserve credit." The president declared the shooting "very sad" and took limited questions from reporters as he left the hospital, ignoring one about gun policy.
He posted pictures from the meeting on Twitter later that night, reiterating his thanks to first responders.
Our entire Nation, w/one heavy heart, continues to pray for the victims & their families in Parkland, FL. To teachers, law enforcement, first responders & medical professionals who responded so bravely in the face of danger: We THANK YOU for your courage! https://t.co/3yJsrebZMG pic.twitter.com/ti791dENTy
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2018
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday ordered a review of FBI procedure following the agency's admission it did not investigate a January tip about Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old who confessed to killing 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, on Wednesday.
"It is now clear that the warning signs were there and tips to the FBI were missed," Sessions said in a statement. "We see the tragic consequences of those failures." The review will be led by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and will also examine relevant Department of Justice operations more broadly.
This comes amid increasing calls for FBI Director Christopher Wray to resign in response to this investigatory failure. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) is among those who have demanded Wray step down in a statement calling the FBI's conduct "unacceptable." Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also condemned the agency and asked for a congressional probe to accompany the internal investigation. Bonnie Kristian