Blackwater founder Erik Prince met with a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin in early January in what The Washington Post reports was an apparent effort to create a back channel line of communications between Moscow and the incoming Trump administration.
The meeting, on the Seychelles islands, reportedly occurred less than two weeks before President Trump’s inauguration.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreed to arrange the meeting in order to see if Russia might roll back its support for Iran, including in the Syrian civil war, the Post reports.
The full agenda of the meeting, however, is still unclear.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer told the Post, however, that Prince played no role in the transition and that the administration was not aware of the meeting.
“We are not aware of any meetings and Erik Prince had no role in the transition,” Spicer said.
A spokesman for Prince said the meeting had nothing to do with Trump, and slammed the government for “big brother” surveillance practices.
“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’s spokesperson told the Post.
The UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, the Post said.
Trump during his campaign vowed to improve relations with Russia and drew criticism for his friendliness toward Putin. His former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, reportedly discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with the country’s ambassador to the United States.
Flynn resigned after it became public that he had not been completely forthcoming about those talks with other members of the Trump administration.
Trump’s top aides including Flynn, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his chief strategist Steve Bannon first met with Abu Dhabi’s crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in December, during a trip to New York, the Post reports.
Officials learned about Zayed’s visit when they saw his name listed on a flight manifest, signaling a breach in protocol because the UAE did not provide the White House with advance notice of the visit.
Zayed reportedly wanted the meeting to be beneficial for both parties, believing Trump and the UAE have a mutual common interest in getting Russia to split with Iran.
Western officials tell the Post that Zayed and Putin met twice last year, where he pushed his Iran agenda on the Kremlin leader.
The UAE believed that Prince, at the time of the meeting, had the blessing of the incoming Trump administration.
Prince is the founder of Blackwater, a controversial security firm involved in human rights violations in Iraq, with some of the company’s guards being criminally convicted of killing Iraqi civilians. Prince later sold the firm, which has been rebranded.