WASHINGTON – The investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into foreign interference in the 2016 U.S. elections has included interviews and the questioning of witnesses in Israel, which focused on the work of a local company specializing in "social media manipulation," The New York Times reported Saturday.
According to the report, Mueller's team is looking into contacts between Joel Zamel, an Israeli social media expert, and George Nader, a special adviser to the leadership of the United Arab Emirates, who allegedly offered to help Trump defeat his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Nader's name has come up in a number of previous reports about Mueller's investigation, mostly regarding his work on behalf of the UAE and the ties between the Emirates and Trump. This is the first time, however, that it has been directly reported that interviews related to the Mueller investigation were held in Israel.
The report, citing four sources, said that a company linked to Zamel, Psy-Group, was working on an online manipulation campaign that involved usage thousands of fake social media accounts to help Trump get elected. According to the report, Zamel himself was questioned by Mueller's investigators and at least two FBI agents were sent to Israel to interview the company's employees. Mueller's team also worked with the Israel Police to seize computers of one of Zamel's firms. The New York Times notes that there were concerns inside the company about the plan's legality, since U.S. law prohibits non-Americans from being involved in the election.
The report says that Nader and Zamel met with Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., in August 2016, three month ahead of the presidential election, and discussed ways to help the Trump campaign.
The meeting was organized by Erik Prince, a businessman with extensive ties to the Gulf monarchies, and the brother of Trump's Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Prince is also involved in another event that has reportedly become part of Mueller's investigation – a meeting he held with a person close to Russian President Vladimir Putin in January 2017 in the Seychelles. Prince donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations that worked to promote Trump's election campaign.
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Nader reportedly told Trump Jr. during the meeting that "the crown princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win the elections as president." Zamel then "extolled his company’s ability to give an edge to a political campaign," the report says.
The report claimed that a short time after Trump's election victory, Nader transferred a large sum of money to Zamel. "There are conflicting accounts of the reason for the payment, but among other things, a company linked to Mr. Zamel provided Mr. Nader with an elaborate presentation about the significance of social media campaigning to Mr. Trump’s victory," the report stated. The sum of money could have allegedly been as high as $2 million.
Zamel has already been questioned by Mueller's team, according to an earlier report by the Wall Street Journal. The NYT report stated clearly that "investigators have questioned numerous witnesses in Washington, New York, Atlanta, Tel Aviv and elsewhere about what foreign help may have been pledged or accepted" during the 2016 election.
Zamel's lawyer denied his client took part in Trump's campaign, saying Zamel has "provided full cooperation to the government to assist with their investigation." Nader's lawyer said her client "has fully cooperated with the special counsel's investigation and will continue to do so."
Another person with ties to Israel who has reportedly become part of the investigation is billionaire Elliott Broidy, a prominent Republican donor who worked with Nader during Trump's first year in office to promote pro-UAE policies by the Trump administration. Broidy has significant business interests in the UAE, and also has ties to leading figures in Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was one of the leading donors and fund-raisers for the Republican party during the 2016 campaign.