Mueller Probe: Israeli Firm, Trump Campaign Discussed Smearing Rivals in 2016

The contacts between Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016, and Psy-Group, are being examined by the special counsel, NYT reports

Rick Gates, former deputy campaign manager for Donald Trump / US President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts, MANDEL NGAN / AFP

WASHINGTON – A senior official in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign asked an Israeli private intelligence firm to plan a “social media manipulation” effort against political rivals, including the usage of fake profiles and the spreading of false information. The contacts between Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign manager in 2016, and Israeli company Psy-Group, were first reported on Tuesday by the New York Times. The services were likely not used for Trump's campaign eventually, the report says.

According to the report, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating foreign interference in the 2016 election, is closely examining these contacts. His office, the report said, has interviewed workers from Psy-Group and collected documents from the company’s headquarters in Israel.

Mueller is specifically interested in an alleged $2 million payment that the company’s founder reportedly received shortly after the 2016 election from George Nader, a senior adviser to the government of the United Arab Emirates.

>> The countless Israeli connections to Mueller’s probe of Trump and Russia | Analysis ■ Who is Joel Zamel, the Australian-Israeli linked to Mueller’s Trump Probe?

Trump and Senator Ted Cruz speak simultaneously at the Fox Business Network Republican presidential candidates debate in North Charleston, South Carolina, January 14, 2016
\ REUTERS

While the report states that it’s unclear if anything came out of Psy-Group’s offers to the Trump campaign, it indicates an opening of senior officials in Trump’s campaign to discussing the same kind of social media manipulation that was eventually carried out by Russia during the election.

The report said that in March 2016, Gates heard about Psy-Group, a private intelligence firm that employed former Israeli intelligence officers, from a Republican consultant named George Birnbaum. 

"There is no evidence that the Trump campaign acted on the proposals, and Mr. Gates ultimately was uninterested in Psy-Group’s work," the Times reported, citing a person with knowledge of Gates' communication with the Israeli firm. "Psy-Group’s owner, Joel Zamel, did meet in August 2016 with Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Trump’s eldest son," the Times noted.

The meeting took place at Trump Tower, and one other person who participated in it was Nader, the senior adviser to the UAE government.

In the 1990s, Birnbaum helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s successful campaign to become prime minister. He has remained close to political figures in Israel over the years. When he met Gates at the height of Trump’s battle to become the Republican nominee in the presidential race, Birnbaum recommended Psy-Group to Gates, who was interested in technological ways to hurt Trump’s rivals within the Republican Party.

Birnbaum, the report says, put the two sides in touch. According to documents obtained by the paper (and according to the report, also by Mueller’s team of investigators), Psy-Group offered a social media manipulation campaign that would target Texas Senator Ted Cruz, at the time Trump’s main competitor for the Republican nomination. The proposed manipulation campaign was supposed to include fake social media profiles that would attack Cruz and discredit him in the eyes of Republican Party delegates, who eventually decide on the party’s presidential nominee.

According to the report, Psy-Group also offered to provide the Trump campaign with “unique intel” that would come from “covert sources.” The Trump campaign eventually didn’t accept this proposal, it said.

The Israeli company also offered the Trump campaign another project, aimed at using similar tactics against Hillary Clinton, who back in the spring of 2016 was emerging as the likely Democratic nominee whom Trump would face in the general elections. This proposal also included an unclear reference to “complementary intelligence activities” that would target Clinton.

This firm also offered the Trump campaign services such as creating fake social media campaigns that would target Clinton, and specifically use “rifts and rivalries within the opposition.” This proposal wasn’t accepted. During the general election, it should be noted, fake social media accounts operated by Russia promoted left-wing messaging against Clinton, in an attempt to persuade left-leaning voters to either not vote, or cast their ballot for the Green Party. 

The number of votes that the Green Party received in 2016 in the three states that decided the result of the election - Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan - was larger than the gap between Trump and Clinton in those specific states. 

According to the report, a short time after the 2016 election, Nader paid Zamel $2 million. It is not clear what was the reason for that payment. A lawyer for Zamel told the NYT that his client “never pitched, or otherwise discussed, any of Psy-Group’s proposals relating to the U.S. elections with anyone related to the Trump campaign, including not with Donald Trump Jr., except for outlining the capabilities of some of his companies in general terms.”

Gates, for his part, was indicted last year on multiple charges of financial fraud and tax evasion. He pleaded guilty to some of the charges, cooperated with Mueller’s investigation, and testified against Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, during his recent trial in Virginia, which ended in a guilty verdict last month.