There was foreign plan to meddle in the 2016 elections that former special counsel Robert Mueller’s report never mentioned.
Now, with Mueller set to give public testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on Wednesday, Congress could demand answers.
The mysterious social media manipulation plan came together late in the afternoon on Aug. 3, 2016. George Nader and Joel Zamel got a phone call from Eric Prince asking them to join him at Trump Tower to meet then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.
Zamel had been planning for this meeting. At the time, he owned a private security firm called Psy-Group that employed several former Israeli intelligence officers. That spring, Zamel had pitched the Trump campaign on a plan to use fake online personas and “covert sources” to target delegates at the 2016 Republican National Convention, and manipulate voters in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, along with digging up dirt on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her associates.
Zamel revived that pitch ahead of his August 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr., according to The New York Times. Nader, a longtime emissary for the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, pledged their support.
“[W]e are working hard for your father,” Prince said, according to The Times.
If Zamel’s plan sounds familiar, it may be because it is similar to what former special counsel Robert Mueller indicted Russia’s Internet Research Agency for in February 2018.
Nader, who is now facing charges of child sex trafficking in Virginia, was a key witness for Mueller. But Zamel’s social media manipulation plans were mysteriously absent from the redacted, publicly available version of the special counsel’s final report, released in April. Whereas Nader appears in the redacted report around 119 times, Zamel and Psy-Group are totally absent.
That’s despite reports that Mueller and his team interviewed Zamel and other former Psy-Group employees and even seized the now-defunct company’s computers in Israel.
Mueller’s congressional testimony on Wednesday could provide an opportunity for answers about whether the Trump campaign ever put Zamel’s plans into effect. It could also shed light on a series of other meetings Nader and Zamel had with Trump campaign officials in the months before and after the 2016 election — including encounters with a controversial Saudi general at Trump Tower in 2018 over fomenting regime change in Iran.
Getting those answers, however, could be an uphill battle. At a surprise press conference at the Justice Department in May, Mueller said any public testimony he gave “would not go beyond our report.”
“We chose those words carefully and the work speaks for itself,” Mueller said at the time. “And the report is my testimony.”
The Justice Department has told Mueller to stick to his word on that. Associate Deputy Attorney General Bradley Weinsheimer wrote Mueller a letter this week warning that the former special counsel’s testimony “must remain within the boundaries of your public report.” Weinsheimer reportedly said that some of the special counsel’s investigative findings are covered by executive privilege and law-enforcement privilege that exempt them from disclosure to Congress.
House Democrats may also defer questions about Psy-Group to their colleagues in the Senate, where a bipartisan Intelligence Committee investigation asked Zamel and Psy-Group founder Royi Burstein for testimony earlier this month, according to The Daily Beast.
It’s not clear whether the Trump campaign ever hired Zamel’s company to carry out the plan. If it did, that could have run afoul of laws barring foreign participation in U.S. elections.
“Neither Joel Zamel, nor any of his related entities, had any involvement whatsoever in the U.S. election campaign,” Zamel’s lawyer, Marc Mukasey, told The Times in May 2018. Zamel reiterated that denial in an interview with the Daily Caller earlier this month.
“They pitched Mr. Trump Jr. on a social media platform or marketing strategy,” Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for Donald Trump Jr., told the Times last year. “He was not interested and that was the end of it.”
Still, Nader made a mysterious $2 million payment to Zamel after the election, according to the Times, which reported that the two men “gave differing accounts” of the reason for the payment.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) sent a letter to Facebook, Google, Reddit, and Twitter last October demanding answers about how Zamel and his companies used their platforms.
“The covert political influence proposed by Psy-Group warrants the same level of scrutiny and disclosure as those carried out by Russian actors,” Blumenthal wrote.
Blumenthal’s office has not responded to multiple phone calls and voicemail messages since January requesting comment on what responses it received from the companies.
A Facebook spokesperson told ThinkProgress earlier this year that the company is “continually reviewing activity on our platform for potential violations of our policies.”
“[A]t any given time, we have a number of investigations underway,” the spokesperson added.
A source with knowledge of the matter at Twitter interviewed around the same time said the company carried out an investigation but did not “identify anything that appeared to be widespread activity in violation of our policies.”
Reddit and Google declined to comment.