Trump Campaign Aide Requested Online Manipulation Plans via Israeli Intelligence Firm
WASHINGTON — A top Trump campaign official requested proposals in 2016 via an Israeli company to create fake online identities, to use social media manipulation as well as to gather intelligence to help defeat Republican primary race opponents as well as Hillary Clinton, according to interviews as well as copies of the proposals.
The Trump campaign’s interest inside the work began as Russians were escalating their effort to aid Donald J. Trump. Though the Israeli company’s pitches were narrower than Moscow’s interference campaign as well as appear unconnected, the documents show which a senior Trump aide saw the promise of a disruption effort to swing voters in Mr. Trump’s favor.
The campaign official, Rick Gates, sought one proposal to use bogus personas to target as well as sway 5,000 delegates to the 2016 Republican National Convention by attacking Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Mr. Trump’s main opponent at the time. Another proposal describes opposition research as well as “complementary intelligence activities” about Mrs. Clinton as well as people close to her, according to copies of the proposals obtained by The brand new York Times as well as interviews with four people involved in creating the documents.
A third proposal by the company, Psy-Group, which is actually staffed by former Israeli intelligence operatives, sketched out a monthslong plan to help Mr. Trump by using social media to help expose or amplify division among rival campaigns as well as factions. The proposals, part of what Psy-Group called “Project Rome,” used code names to identify the players — Mr. Trump was “Lion” as well as Mrs. Clinton was “Forest.” Mr. Cruz, who Trump campaign officials feared might lead a revolt over the Republican presidential nomination, was “Bear.”
There is actually no evidence which the Trump campaign acted on the proposals, as well as Mr. Gates ultimately was uninterested in Psy-Group’s work, a person with knowledge of the discussions said, in part because different campaign aides were developing a social media strategy. Psy-Group’s owner, Joel Zamel, did meet in August 2016 with Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Trump’s eldest son.
Investigators working for Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russia’s campaign to disrupt the 2016 election as well as whether any Trump associates conspired, have obtained copies of the proposals as well as questioned Psy-Group employees, according to people familiar with those interviews.
The scope of the social media campaigns, essentially a broad effort to sow disinformation among Republican delegates as well as general election voters, was more extensive than the work typically done by campaign operatives to spread the candidate’s message on digital platforms. The proposal to gather information about Mrs. Clinton as well as her aides has elements of traditional opposition research, nevertheless the idea also contains cryptic language which suggests using clandestine means to build “intelligence dossiers.”
Mr. Gates first heard about Psy-Group’s work during a March 2016 meeting at the Mandarin Oriental hotel along the Washington waterfront with George Birnbaum, a Republican consultant with close ties to current as well as former Israeli government officials. Mr. Gates had joined the Trump campaign days earlier with Paul Manafort, his longtime business partner, to try to prevent a revolt of Republican delegates via Mr. Trump toward Mr. Cruz, who was the favored candidate among the party’s establishment.
According to Mr. Birnbaum, Mr. Gates expressed interest during which meeting in using social media influence as well as manipulation as a campaign tool, most immediately to try to sway Republican delegates toward Mr. Trump.
“He was interested in finding the technology to achieve what they were looking for,” Mr. Birnbaum said in an interview. Through a lawyer, Mr. Gates declined to comment.
The special counsel’s office indicted Mr. Manafort as well as Mr. Gates last year on multiple charges of financial fraud as well as tax evasion. Mr. Gates pleaded guilty to several of the charges which year, as well as he is actually cooperating with Mr. Mueller’s investigation.
the idea is actually unclear whether the Project Rome proposals describe work which would likely violate laws regulating foreign participation in American elections. Psy-Group hired Covington & Burling, a Washington-based law firm, to conduct a legal review. Stuart Eizenstat, a former American diplomat as well as a partner at the firm who participated inside the legal review, declined to comment on its conclusions.
Mr. Birnbaum was a protégé of Arthur J. Finkelstein, the legendary Republican political operative, as well as has spent years as a consultant working on behalf of candidates in foreign elections. In 1996, he helped Mr. Finkelstein engineer Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory over Shimon Peres to become the prime minister of Israel.
Since then, Mr. Birnbaum has worked extensively as a campaign consultant for Israeli politicians as well as has developed a network of contacts with current as well as former Israeli security officials. He served as a foreign policy adviser to the 2016 presidential campaign of Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who is actually currently the secretary of housing as well as urban development.
Mr. Birnbaum appeared to initiate the contact with Mr. Gates, asking for his email address via Eckart Sager, a political consultant who had worked with both men, to pitch Mr. Gates on a technology which could be used by Mr. Gates’s as well as Mr. Manafort’s clients in Eastern Europe. Mr. Sager’s name emerged which year in a filing by Mr. Mueller’s team, which claimed which Mr. Manafort had tried to influence Mr. Sager’s court testimony inside the special counsel’s case against Mr. Manafort.
After the hotel meeting with Mr. Gates in March 2016, Mr. Birnbaum worked directly with Psy-Group employees to refine the proposals for the Trump campaign, according to people familiar with the work.
The proposals all promise the utmost secrecy, including the use of code names as well as password-protected documents. Filled with jargon as well as buzzwords, they sketch out a vigorous campaign where Psy-Group employees would likely conduct the tedious work of creating messages which could influence delegates based on their personalities.
The first document, dated April 2016, said which the company “was asked to provide a proposal” for “campaign intelligence as well as influence services.” Psy-Group promised which “veteran intelligence officers” would likely use various methods to assess the leanings of the roughly 5,000 delegates to the Republican nominating convention.
After scouring social media accounts as well as all different available information to compile a dossier on the psychology of any persuadable delegate, more than 40 Psy-Group employees would likely use “authentic looking” fake online identities to bombard up to 2,500 targets with specially tailored messages meant to win them over to Mr. Trump.
The messages would likely describe Mr. Cruz’s “ulterior motives or hidden plans,” or they would likely appear to come via former Cruz supporters or via influential individuals with the same background or ideology as a target. The barrage of messages would likely continue for months as well as include “both online as well as offline” approaches, even telephone calls.
Psy-Group also said which the idea would likely obtain “unique intel” by different means, including “covert sources” as well as “tailored avatars.”
Each approach would likely “look authentic as well as not part of the paid campaign,” the proposal promised. The cost tag for the work was more than $3 million. To carry out the plan, Psy-Group intended to double its size, hiring a different 50 employees — some of them American citizens — as well as renting brand new office space, according to former employees of the company.
A second proposal focused on gathering information about Mrs. Clinton as well as 10 of her associates through publicly available data as well as unspecified “complementary intelligence activities.” Psy-Group promised to prepare a comprehensive dossier on each of the targets, including “any actionable intelligence.”
A third document emphasized “tailored third-party messaging” aimed at minority, suburban female as well as undecided voters in battleground states. the idea promised to create as well as maintain fake online personas which would likely deliver messages highlighting Mr. Trump’s merits as well as Mrs. Clinton’s weaknesses or revealing “rifts as well as rivalries within the opposition.”
Though the idea appears which Trump campaign officials declined to accept any of the proposals, Mr. Zamel pitched the company’s services in at least general terms during a meeting on Aug. 3, 2016, at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr. which meeting, revealed in May by The Times, was also attended by George Nader, an emissary via the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, as well as by Erik Prince, a Republican donor as well as the founder of the private security company formerly known as Blackwater.
Former Psy-Group employees said which, in anticipation of the Trump Tower meeting, Mr. Zamel asked them to prepare an updated variation of the third proposal. A lawyer for Mr. Zamel said which Mr. Zamel had not personally discussed specific proposals with Donald Trump Jr. or anyone else via the Trump campaign.
“Mr. Zamel 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,” said the lawyer, Marc Mukasey.
Mr. Nader as well as Mr. Zamel have given differing accounts over whether Mr. Zamel ultimately carried out the social media effort to help the Trump campaign as well as why Mr. Nader paid him $2 million after the election, according to people who have discussed the matter with the two men.
The reason for the payment has been of keen interest to Mr. Mueller, according to people familiar with the matter.
the idea is actually unclear how as well as when the special counsel’s office began its investigation into Psy-Group’s work, nevertheless F.B.I. agents have spent hours interviewing the firm’s employees. which year, federal investigators presented a court order to the Israel Police as well as the Israeli Ministry of Justice to confiscate computers in Psy-Group’s former offices in Petah Tikva, east of Tel Aviv.
The company is actually currently in liquidation.
Mark Mazzetti reported via Washington, Ronen Bergman via Tel Aviv, David D. Kirkpatrick via London as well as Maggie Haberman via brand new York.