Why Is Robert Mueller Interested in a Private Intelligence Firm Called ‘PSY Group’?

Meetings between Trump campaign officials and representatives of an intelligence firm that promises to "shape reality" are reportedly of particular interest.

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PSY Group logo.
Image via PSY Group

On 19 May 2018, the New York Times first reported on an 3 August 2016 meeting arranged by Blackwater founder Erik Prince; it was attended by Donald Trump Jr., George Nader (who represented himself as an emissary of two wealthy princes, one from Saudi Arabia and one from the United Arab Emirates), and an “Israeli specialist in social media manipulation” named Joel Zamel:

Erik Prince, the private security contractor and the former head of Blackwater, arranged the meeting, which took place on Aug. 3, 2016. The emissary, George Nader, told Donald Trump Jr. that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president.

The social media specialist, Joel Zamel, extolled his company’s ability to give an edge to a political campaign; by that time, the firm had already drawn up a multimillion-dollar proposal for a social media manipulation effort to help elect Mr. Trump.

Though Zamel is associated with several high-profile companies — including the Israeli-founded, Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Wikistrat — the company he was representing at this particular Trump Tower meeting was a secretive entity called PSY Group, whose somewhat ominous motto is “Shape Reality.” Their proposal, as described by the Times, involved the use of thousands of fake Facebook profiles:

Mr. Zamel had been working on a proposal for a covert multimillion-dollar online manipulation campaign to help elect Mr. Trump, according to three people involved and a fourth briefed on the effort. The plan involved using thousands of fake social media accounts to promote Mr. Trump’s candidacy on platforms like Facebook.

Currently, the company’s official site is extremely sparse, showing only their corporate logo and a Cypriot business address that is also the address of the Cyprus branch of an international firm that “predominantly serves professional intermediary and corporate clients in Cyprus, Russia and [Central and Eastern Europe].”

An archived version of their website from 2016, however, provides much more detail about the kinds of services they offered, and which suggested ties to various intelligence agencies and described their actions on social media:

Psy Group was founded and is managed by a group of high ranking officers from some the world’s most renowned elite intelligence agencies. Highly experienced in operating in complex and challenging environments, our team has a proven track record in information gathering, analysis, research, special intelligence operations and technology in the physical and cyber domains.

Our influence team is comprised of top experts who specialize in promotion, campaign, advertising, SEO/SEM, ORM, guerilla marketing and more. We maintain a hands-on approach, utilizing decades of experience of interfacing with the highest level of government officials and decision makers to deliver unparalleled results with utmost discretion. […]

Beyond our technical expertise, we understand the crucial nature that discretion, legality and security holds in every service we provide our clients. That’s why we put as much emphasis in protecting our client’s anonymity as we do on executing every tailor-designed solution within strict ethical and legal boundaries.

According to the Times piece  which relied heavily on anonymous sources — Trump Jr. was interested in what Zamel had to say, but it remains unclear whether they ended up utilizing its services:

It is unclear whether such a proposal was executed, and the details of who commissioned it remain in dispute. But Donald Trump Jr. responded approvingly, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting, and after those initial offers of help, Mr. Nader was quickly embraced as a close ally by Trump campaign advisers — meeting frequently with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, and Michael T. Flynn, who became the president’s first national security adviser. At the time, Mr. Nader was also promoting a secret plan to use private contractors to destabilize Iran, the regional nemesis of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

The activities of Zamel and his firm PSY Group are of interest to the FBI investigation into the 2016 Presidential elections due to Nader’s close ties with Trump officials, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, potentially suggesting that foreign powers other than Russia sought to provide services or money to the campaign.

This meeting, according to the report, is “the first indication that countries other than Russia may have offered assistance to the Trump campaign in the months before the presidential election.” The Times also noted that Trump’s foreign policy has been uniquely friendly to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia:

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.

According to Trump Jr. lawyer Alan Futerfas:

Donald Trump Jr. recalls a meeting with Erik Prince, George Nader and another individual who may be Joel Zamel [prior to the 2016 election]. They pitched Mr. Trump Jr. on a social media platform or marketing strategy. He was not interested and that was the end of it.

However, following the 2016 presidential election, Nader — who is currently coöperating with the Special Counsel’s investigation — paid a large sum of money to Zamel for services relating to a presentation on social media’s significance in Trump’s election:

After Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Nader paid Mr. Zamel a large sum of money, described by one associate as up to $2 million. 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. […]

While these are the first reports of a meeting between Zamel and Trump campaign officials, it is not the first time Zamel’s name has come up in connection with the Trump campaign or the Mueller investigation. In April 2018, the Wall Street Journal first reported that the special counsel’s office had informally met with him regarding his activities with Nader:

Mr. Zamel has informally met with Mr. Mueller’s team, according to a person familiar with the matter, and was asked questions about his business relationship with George Nader, a Lebanese-American who serves as a top adviser to U.A.E.

Marc L. Mukasey, a lawyer for Zamel (who is also, Talking Points Memo pointed out, a long-time legal partner of Rudy Giuliani), has denied any involvement in the U.S. election campaign. “Neither Joel Zamel, nor any of his related entities, had any involvement whatsoever in the U.S. election campaign,” he said.

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Sources

Mazzetti, Mark, et al.   “Trump Jr. and Other Aides Met With Gulf Emissary Offering Help to Win Election.”
    New York Times.   19 May 2018.

Tau, Bryon, and Ballhaus, Rebecca.   “Mueller Probe Expands to Israeli Entrepreneur With U.A.E. Ties.”
    Wall Street Journal.   19 May 2018.

Trident Trust.   “Cyprus”
    Accessed 23 May 2018.

Cyprus Securities and Exchange Commission.   “Trident Trust Company (Cyprus) Ltd.”
    Accessed 23 May 2018.

Tau, Bryon, and Ballhaus, Rebecca.   “Mueller Probe Into U.A.E. Influence Broadens.”
    Wall Street Journal.   2 April 2018.

Marshall, Josh.   “It’s a Small World of Trump Lawyers.”
    Wall Street Journal.   19 May 2018.