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Donald Trump Jr. and Trump aides were reportedly open to foreign help in 2016 election beyond Russia

According to a report from the New York Times, the president’s eldest son and other aides met with an emissary for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia who said the countries’ leaders wanted to help Donald Trump win.

Donald Trump Jr. getting into an elevator in the lobby of Trump Tower in November 2016.
Donald Trump Jr. getting into an elevator in the lobby of Trump Tower in November 2016.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Russia isn’t the only country Donald Trump Jr. was open to meeting with about getting a boost for his father’s presidential campaign. According to a report from the New York Times on Saturday, the president’s son also met with an Israeli social media specialist and an emissary for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia who said the countries wanted to help Donald Trump win.

On August 3, 2016, Trump Jr. took part in a meeting with Erik Prince, a Trump booster, founder of the private security firm Blackwater, and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; George Nader, a business executive and emissary for the princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and Joel Zamel, an Israeli expert in social media manipulation.

The men met at Trump Tower in New York, according to a report from Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman, and David Kirkpatrick. Nader told Trump Jr. that the princes of Saudi Arabia and UAE were “eager” to help Trump win the White House, saying they believed he was a strong leader who would “fill the power vacuum” they thought President Barack Obama had left in the Middle East. Zamel’s company, Psy-Group, had put together a proposal for an online manipulation program to help elect Trump using thousands of fake accounts to promote him on Facebook.

According to the Times, it’s not clear whether the proposal was executed, and it’s not clear who commissioned it in the first place. But Trump Jr. “responded approvingly,” and Nader joined the Trump-world fold, meeting often with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his former strategist, Steve Bannon.

After the election, Nader paid Zamel as much as $2 million, and what the money’s intended use isn’t clear. White Night, a Philippines-based company linked to Zamel, reportedly provided Nader with an elaborate presentation about the importance of social media campaigning in Trump’s win.

It’s illegal for foreign governments or people to get involved in US elections. The Trump campaign seemed open to it.

There are multiple reasons the report matters. It indicates that it wasn’t just Russia that was offering to help the Trump campaign ahead of the 2016 election. It also raises questions about what sort of repayment the Middle East countries in question might have received for their help. And it demonstrates the Trump campaign’s reckless, if not nefarious, attitude toward campaign laws in the United States. Per the Times:

It is illegal for foreign governments or individuals to be involved in American elections, and it is unclear what — if any — direct assistance Saudi Arabia and the Emirates may have provided. But two people familiar with the meetings said that Trump campaign officials did not appear bothered by the idea of cooperation with foreigners.

Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for Trump Jr., told the Times that the younger Trump “recalls” a meeting with Prince, Nader, and someone who “may be” Zamel. “They pitched Mr. Trump Jr. on a social media platform or marketing strategy. He was not interested and that was the end of it,” Futerfas said.

Marc Mukasey, a lawyer for Zamel, said that he had “no involvement whatsoever in the US election campaign.” Kathryn Ruemmler, a lawyer for Nader, said he has “fully cooperated” with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Nader’s name has come up multiple times in the context of the Mueller investigation. According to the Times, his interactions with Zamel, Prince, and Trump Jr. are a focus of the probe.

During the 2016 campaign, Nader visited Moscow at least twice as a confidential emissary from Crown Prince Mohammed of Abu Dhabi, and he helped to arrange a meeting in Seychelles between Prince and a Russian business executive close to Vladimir Putin that Mueller has also been probing. Companies tied to Zamel have connections to Russia as well.

And after Trump’s inauguration, Nader was reportedly promoting a proposal to use private contractors for an economic sabotage against Iran that might get the country to abandon its nuclear program. He pitched it to Saudi officials last spring. And he was in discussions with Prince about a plan to convince Saudi Arabia to pay $2 billion to create a private army to fight against Iranian proxy forces in Yemen.

The Times’s report asks as many questions as it answers, especially in the final paragraphs, where the writers wonder what Nader’s, Prince’s and Zamel’s efforts may have gotten for Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Since entering the White House, Mr. Trump has allied himself closely with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. His first overseas trip was to Riyadh. He strongly backed Saudi and Emirati efforts to isolate their neighbor Qatar, another American ally, even over apparent disagreement from the State and Defense Departments.

This month, Mr. Trump also withdrew from an Obama administration nuclear deal with Iran that both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had campaigned against for years, delivering them their biggest victory yet from his administration.