In Part 2 of our interview with The Intercept’s investigative reporter Matthew Cole, he examines in detail Erik Prince’s ties to the Trump administration. This comes as a new report by The New York Times reveals how Prince, the founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, helped recruit former spies to infiltrate and gather intelligence about Democratic campaigns and labor organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with investigative reporter Matthew Cole of The Intercept about Erik Prince. He’s the Blackwater founder and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. A new New York Times investigation has found that Prince helped recruit former spies to infiltrate and gather intelligence about a Democratic congressional campaign and the American Federation of Teachers. The exposé reveals previously unreported details about the ties between Prince and Project Veritas, a right-wing group that often sets up sting operations, that targets groups like Planned Parenthood, that targets journalists, by recording covert videos and then editing them.
According to The New York Times, one former spy recruited by Erik Prince helped run a Project Veritas operation to secretly tape leaders of the Michigan office of the American Federation of Teachers back in 2017. The spy, named Richard Seddon, directed an undercover operative to gather and make public information that could damage the union. In response to The New York Times report, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tweeted, “They didn’t succeed in their attempt to hurt our union but note what the right wing will do to try to eliminate workers’ voice.” Derek Martin, director of the consumer watch group Allied Progress, said, “There’s not a lot of dots to connect here. Secretary DeVos’ brother was directly involved in a spying scheme in her home state against a teachers’ union she’s been hostile with for years. If this doesn’t clear the bar for an immediate Congressional investigation, nothing does,” he said.
In another instance, in 2018, the same undercover operative who gathered information about the American Federation of Teachers infiltrated the congressional campaign of former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger, who was running and won a seat for Congress representing Virginia as a Democrat. The campaign fired the operative after discovering her identity.
Matthew Cole first broke the story of Erik Prince’s ties to the Trump administration last year in a story headlined “The Complete Mercenary: How Erik Prince Used the Rise of Trump to Make an Improbable Comeback.”
So, Matthew, in Part 1 of our discussion, you talked about this expanded New York Times investigation targeting the Michigan American Federation of Teachers and Abigail Spanberger. And she was able to find the spy in her organization and fire her. But you say — you talk about the whole history of what Erik Prince has been able to do. What do you think is most important to understand? And what would a congressional investigation mean?
MATTHEW COLE: I think the biggest question that exists here is, you know — and you mentioned in your introduction — the headline for the story could have been “Brother of Secretary of Education Sends Spies in on Teachers’ Union,” biggest teachers’ union organization. And the question there becomes: Was it coordinated? Now, O’Keefe has insisted that he gets no direction from anyone anywhere. And —
AMY GOODMAN: O’Keefe, James O’Keefe, is —
MATTHEW COLE: Sorry. James O’Keefe is the leader of, the founder and — it’s a small organization he runs, Project Veritas. What we already know from from the history of Erik Prince and Project Veritas is this is not just some similar-minded — two similar-minded people in organizations. This is Erik Prince’s money and connections being used first to train Project Veritas — and that’s what I reported last year, was that he provided this British spy and his ranch for spy training, undercover training and weapons training, which O’Keefe has conveniently tweeted out pictures of at the time, so we can see what he was bragging about at the time. But afterwards and what the Times did here was expand and show one of — at least one, if not two, of the operations in which the British spy, the former British spy that was working for Prince, what operations he helped oversee and run for Project Veritas. So the question becomes: After Prince has had them trained and equipped, funded, where does he send them off to, and what do they do? And the question becomes: How coordinated is that with the Trump administration?
So, let’s go back for history here. Erik Prince gets them trained in January, early January of 2017, just right around the inauguration of Donald Trump.
AMY GOODMAN: And again, he was with Donald Trump on inauguration night, Erik Prince.
MATTHEW COLE: The relationship between the Prince family, both the nuclear family and the expanded family, and Trump administration and Trump is pretty significant. He was a huge donor. His sister now, Betsy DeVos, secretary of education, also a donor. They are close to the Mercer family. The Mercers were maybe the biggest donors of the Trump administration and supporters of Steve Bannon. Bannon is a close friend of Erik Prince. So, the ties are about.
Trump wins. He takes office. Erik Prince decides that Project Veritas needs something new. They need some spy training and covert military, paramilitary training at his ranch.
AMY GOODMAN: In Wyoming.
MATTHEW COLE: In Wyoming. He does that. Shortly thereafter —
AMY GOODMAN: And can you explain one thing: Where had Erik Prince been before? Like, we know about him as the founder of Blackwater, the mercenary organization.
MATTHEW COLE: So, the way — the best way to think about it is, is that in Republican administrations, Prince is on top, and so far in Democratic administrations, Prince is on the bottom. During the Obama administration, for an eight-year run, Prince was basically living abroad trying to sell — and successfully selling — mercenary services to foreign countries, without a license I may add.
AMY GOODMAN: Particularly also focusing on Africa?
MATTHEW COLE: Africa and the Middle East. So he worked for the UAE. He did a lot of stuff in Africa, and then he started to work for the Chinese.
AMY GOODMAN: But important to say he was living abroad because, perhaps, of concerns of being indicted in the United States?
MATTHEW COLE: Absolutely, not only living abroad, but seeking a second passport. He was looking for another nationality to avoid any kind of legal repercussions for what he had — things connected to Blackwater, which he was forced to sell. Under the Obama administration, he saw that they were — the Department of Justice was interested in prosecuting him, or at least looking into things he had done. He wanted to insulate himself from that. He moved his family to the United Arab Emirates, and then he sought a passport from another country, a third country, in the effort and hopes that if he were to be indicted, he couldn’t be sent, you know, sent back, couldn’t be extradited.
So, Prince comes back with the Trump administration. Trump wins, and now Prince is in the catbird seat. He’s now sort of a shadow adviser to Trump. He’s close to Bannon. He’s trying to sell a private war in Afghanistan as a solution to ending the war there. And he gets Project Veritas trained. He brings them in. And then right before Trump takes office, there’s a huge Washington Post story that says Erik Prince had a secret meeting in the Seychelles with a Russian emissary, an emissary of Putin who happened to be a top banker for Russia. That story infuriated Erik Prince. What we know now is, is that a few weeks after O’Keefe and his colleagues were trained in Wyoming by Erik Prince and this British spy, they show up, and they target The Washington Post reporter Adam Entous, who had published that story and that leak. Shortly after that, they then tried to get a story into the paper, into The Washington Post, with an operative, a Project Veritas operative, posing as a victim of Roy Moore, who was running for Senate in Alabama.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, let’s be clear. Roy Moore was the senatorial candidate who a number of women said, when they were underage, he had sexually assaulted them and abused them.
MATTHEW COLE: Yes. So, Project Veritas sent a female operative in to contact The Washington Post claiming to be one of those victims or among the victims of Roy Moore. And what they hoped, clearly, was to get The Washington Post to run a story, a fake story, a false story, using this information. Now, the Post caught it, caught on very quickly. Project Veritas is very ham-handed. They’re not particularly clever. They’re very sloppy. And the professionals at The Washington Post caught it and then exposed that story beforehand.
But let’s take a look at that story for a second, or that effort. Here you have an organization that tries to get in and seed a false story to The Washington Post. There is some evidence that there was coordination or at least knowledge of the Project Veritas effort by the Trump — at the Trump White House at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: And let’s remember that, of course, President Trump had spent a lot — expended a lot of political capital to get Roy Moore elected.
MATTHEW COLE: And, in the 2016 election and campaign, donated to Project Veritas, met O’Keefe and gave him $10,000 — I think it was $10,000 donation in 2016.
AMY GOODMAN: Personally.
MATTHEW COLE: Personally, absolutely, personally. So, there are direct ties and connections between Trump, the Trump White House and Project Veritas and James O’Keefe. And here’s Erik Prince, brother of the secretary of education, a shadow adviser to the White House, who now finds his efforts to help Project Veritas are going towards targeting the paper that exposed Erik Prince’s secret meetings in the Seychelles, for instance, and a potential back channel between the incoming Trump administration and the Putin government at the time.
So, the question is: How much knowledge, what knowledge, does the Trump administration have about Erik Prince’s efforts and Project Veritas to run political — domestic political propaganda campaigns against journalists and news organizations, against teachers’ unions, various other progressive and liberal domestic political operations and functions, all within — you know, well within the bounds of free speech, right? And that’s the question of what a congressional hearing or investigation could open up here, is: Is this White House taking the playbook of Richard Nixon and having some sort of enemies list in which they then use former spies, spies, undercover operations to try to infiltrate and expose?
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Erik Prince in an Al Jazeera interview saying that he met with Trump campaign representatives in August of 2016, despite not disclosing the meeting during a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee in 2017, according to official transcripts. This is Prince speaking with reporter and your colleague, Intercept reporter Mehdi Hasan.
MEHDI HASAN: You’re a big supporter of Donald Trump. You’ve been questioned by special counsel Robert Mueller over the Russiagate investigation. He’s looked at your laptop and your phones, I believe. You’ve also testified to Congress. In November 2017, you told Congress, under oath, that you played, quote, “no official or, really, unofficial role” in the Trump campaign. What you didn’t tell Congress is that on August 3rd, 2016, you were at a meeting during the campaign at Trump Tower with Don Jr., Trump’s son; with Stephen Miller, then a campaign adviser to Trump; with George Nader, a former Blackwater colleague of yours who acts as a back channel to the Saudis, the Emiratis — he also happens to be a convicted pedophile; and also Joel Zamel, an Israeli expert on social media manipulation. How come you didn’t mention that meeting to Congress, given it’s so relevant to their investigation?
ERIK PRINCE: I did, as part of the — part of the investigations. I certainly disclosed any — any meetings, the very, very few I had.
MEHDI HASAN: Not in the congressional testimony you gave to the House. We went through it. You didn’t mention anything about August 2016, meeting in Trump Tower. They specifically asked you, “What contacts did you have?” And you didn’t answer that.
ERIK PRINCE: I don’t believe I was asked that question.
MEHDI HASAN: You were asked, “Were there any formal communications or contact with the campaign?” You said, “Apart from writing papers, putting up yard signs, no.” That’s what you said. I’ve got the transcript of the conversation here.
ERIK PRINCE: Sure, I mean, I might have been — I think I was at Trump headquarters or the campaign headquarters maybe —
MEHDI HASAN: Trump Tower, August 3rd, 2016, you —
ERIK PRINCE: Possible.
MEHDI HASAN: — an Israeli dude, a back channel to the Emiratis and the Saudis, Don Jr., Stephen Miller.
ERIK PRINCE: We were there to talk about Iran policy.
MEHDI HASAN: Oh, you were there to talk about Iran policy?
ERIK PRINCE: Mm-hmm.
MEHDI HASAN: Don’t you think that’s something important to disclose to the House Intelligence Committee while you’re under oath?
ERIK PRINCE: I did.
MEHDI HASAN: You didn’t. We just went through the testimony. There’s no mention of the Trump Tower meeting in August 2016. Why not?
ERIK PRINCE: I don’t know if they got the transcript wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: “I don’t know if they got the transcript wrong,” says Erik Prince. He’s being interviewed by The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, who works for Al Jazeera, as well. Matthew Cole, explain what this is all about.
MATTHEW COLE: So, and it’s important to note that currently the — Erik Prince was interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee for the Trump-Russia investigation. And that was a result of The Washington Post story in 2017, that Erik Prince had gone to the Seychelles to meet with an emissary of Putin for a secret meeting that was meant to be some kind of back channel between the incoming Trump administration and the Kremlin. And in that testimony, he essentially downplayed any relationship to the Trump campaign as anything other than a supporter and then gave details about the meeting in the Seychelles that were limited. And he omitted, did not disclose, this other meeting that he had in the summer of 2016 at the Trump Tower in which he was trying to make an introduction to an Israeli businessman who sold online — you know, fake online propaganda using social media and a social media campaign.
And so, what my colleague Mehdi Hasan was doing there was asking him why he didn’t disclose that in the testimony. And Mehdi rightly notes that Prince did not disclose it. That resulted in a criminal referral by the House Intelligence Committee to the Department of Justice for lying and obstruction or misleading Congress in his testimony. That investigation is open and currently underway. We don’t know yet whether — it’s a major question whether, under Bill Barr or under Donald Trump, whether Erik Prince could ever be indicted. And it’s an open question. I have doubts that he will. So that’s what is going on there.
But what it gets to is Erik Prince’s relationship with the Trump administration and campaign. He’s honest when he says, “I had no official or, really, unofficial relationship or position with the Trump team.” That’s true. But that’s what gives Erik Prince — that’s what’s so dangerous about Erik Prince, is the total deniability of Erik Prince for the Trump administration. He can take his money, know exactly what they want to do. He’s still very, very close. Erik Prince is both a business partner and a close colleague of Steve Bannon. And he has very much an understanding of what the Trump administration and what the Trump White House is seeking in their efforts around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re speaking on the eve of the Michigan primary. Interesting that he targeted the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Also, of course, it’s where both he and his sister, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, are, and she is basically an avowed enemy of the teachers’ unions. But the Michigan primary is taking place on Tuesday. And the question is: What is Erik Prince doing now relating to the 2020 election?
MATTHEW COLE: That is without a doubt the biggest question here, is: Where is Erik — what role is Erik Prince going to play in Trump’s reelection campaign, and just generally in the 2020 election? We don’t know the answer to that, except that we can see the little pieces, the little data points, that suggest he’ll be doing the same as he did in 2016, which is looking for any effort, privately funded, to help Trump and the Republicans win. And he will use undercover spies. He will use operatives. He will do anything he needs to do that he thinks is necessary to help defeat the Democrats. And so, having —
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, he has a lot to lose, because when President Obama was in office, as you pointed out in Part 1 of this conversation, he had to move abroad. He was afraid he’d be indicted in the United States.
MATTHEW COLE: Even more so in the last story that I published about Erik Prince and the federal investigation into him. He told someone this past summer, who offered help to him for his legal travails, that, under Trump, he didn’t have any concerns. He absolutely believes that he’s untouchable under President Trump. And there is no evidence yet to suggest he’s wrong. So, the question is — the point is exactly as you say, Amy, is that he has a lot to lose. If you get a Democratic president in or another administration, someone other than William Barr as the attorney general, he may find himself in the crosshairs. Now, I think there’s legitimate — the investigations into him, I’ve seen some of the evidence, I’ve reported some of the evidence. There are legitimate issues for him to be investigated for criminal behavior. Whether he can escape that punishment or not, or that interest, is an open question. So he has his own reasons to support Trump and do whatever he can to help their cause.
AMY GOODMAN: But, of course, he also has his ideological solidarity with President Trump.
MATTHEW COLE: Absolutely. I mean, these are fish that all swim in the same stream.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Matthew Cole, your latest article for The Intercept is “The FBI Is Investigating Erik Prince for Trying to Weaponize Crop Dusters.” Explain what you’ve been looking at.
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah, that comes from a story that my colleague Jeremy Scahill and I did years ago about Erik’s efforts to arm the single-engine agriculture, agricrop planes, American planes, to be able to do spying, surveillance, and arm them with missiles and guns, and use them in small wars in Africa and the Middle East. And he was successfully able to modify the planes and get them prepared to take weapons on, when he was working for his company Frontier Services Group, which is based in Hong Kong. And that led to a disclosure to the government by his own colleagues, his American colleagues at that company, that he had broken the law. He had likely violated the law regulating arms trafficking, and — because you need a license to do these kind of things, and he doesn’t have a license.
That investigation, that incident, those planes are among the things that the FBI is currently investigating Erik Prince for. Now, the question is: Why did it take five years for the FBI to look into it? I don’t know the answer to that. The other issue is, there was another proposal that The Washington Post described. Erik tried to sell an armed aviation unit to the UAE in 2017. And then there is the House Intelligence criminal referral for misleading Congress. So you have multiple things that the FBI and the Department of Justice are looking at into Erik Prince. The planes are just part of his lifelong obsession of selling various elements of war. You know, his father — the Prince family fortune was built on auto parts and the auto part industry, and that’s why — and they’re from Michigan. Erik Prince has tried to make a fortune selling every part of a war, whether it’s people, intelligence, hardware, tanks, vehicles or airplanes. His first passion is aviation and planes. He has had an obsession with trying to get these small, literally crop dusters, American-built and -made crop dusters, which are then modified to fight in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies across Africa. And he has two of them, and he’s trying to find a place to — he’s trying to find someone to rent them, to buy them, so that he can kill people.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Cole, investigative journalist for The Intercept, we will link to all your pieces on Erik Prince at The Intercept at democracynow.org.
To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.