Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, the Saudi intelligence chief taking the fall for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, hobnobbed in New York with Michael Flynn and other members of the transition team shortly before Trump’s inauguration. The topic of their discussion: regime change in Iran.
Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince, dispatched Assiri from Riyadh for the meetings, which took place over the course of two days in early January 2017, according to communications reviewed by The Daily Beast. The January meetings have come under scrutiny by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office as part of his probe into foreign governments’ attempts to gain influence in the Trump campaign and in the White House, an individual familiar with the investigation told The Daily Beast. A spokesperson for Mueller declined to comment.
The New York meetings were attended and brokered by George Nader, a Lebanese-American with close ties to leaders in the United Arab Emirates who is currently cooperating with Mueller’s team. Also present at the meetings was Israeli social media strategist Joel Zamel, who has been questioned by Mueller for his role in pitching top campaign officials on an influence operation to help Trump win the election—overtures that could have broken federal election laws.
Steve Bannon was involved as well in conversations on Iran regime change during those two days in January, according to the communications.
The communications show that participants in the meetings discussed a multi-pronged strategy for eroding, and eventually ending, the current Iranian regime—including economic, information, and military tactics for weakening the Tehran government. Earlier this year The New York Times reported Nader was promoting a plan to carry out economic sabotage against Iran and pitched the plan in the Spring of 2017 to Saudi, UAE, and American officials. It’s unclear if that plan ever moved forward or if it was part of the larger project for regime change discussed in these January 2017 meetings.
Either way, former CIA acting director John McLaughlin told The Daily Beast, the get-togethers as described were very unusual.
“It’s concerning to me as a former intelligence official because of the fact that it smacks of covert action planning, which is the most sensitive thing the U.S. government does and is so uniquely the province of the sitting president,” he said.
A spokesperson for Zamel said his client had spoken to the special counsel’s office about his business but declined to comment on the January 2017 meeting. Bannon did not comment on the record for this story. A lawyer for Flynn declined to comment.
The meetings in New York, which have not yet been reported, show the depth of efforts by foreign officials and power brokers to influence the nascent Trump administration on the most sensitive foreign policy decisions. The discussions in New York came at a time when the Trump team was developing its Iran strategy and looking for input from individuals who were working on plans to counter Tehran’s influence. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose leaders made overtures to the campaign throughout the 2016 election, were at the time developing campaigns to thwart its regional adversaries, including Iran.
“It makes complete sense that Assiri would have been meeting with the Trump team during this time,” one former Pentagon official with close ties to the intelligence community told The Daily Beast. “The team was meeting with a lot of foreign influencers and Saudi was a country that wanted in on all anti-Iran projects.”
The meetings in New York not only reveal details of one of the Trump team’s first encounters with officials from Saudi Arabia—a country that is embroiled in one of the year’s most scandalous and consequential geopolitical incidents—but also sheds more light on Trumpworld’s relationship to Zamel, a self-styled Mark Zuckerberg of the national-security world with deep ties to Israeli intelligence.
Trump’s team drew in Zamel, a young strategist and entrepreneur, during the campaign. Zamel had pitched a plan in August 2016 to Donald Trump Jr. to help Trump win the presidential election, according to The New York Times. It’s unclear if that plan was ever put into action. Trump’s lawyer has previously stated that the candidate heard Zamel’s plan but did not move forward with it.
Zamel’s lawyer has also previously denied his client’s involvement in U.S. election or campaign efforts and told The Daily Beast that he is “not a target” of the Mueller investigation.
But it appears Zamel remained close to the Trump team throughout the election and into the transition. Part of the reason? He had an easy in. He had been introduced to Nader, closely connected with the Trump campaign, years earlier by John Hannah, a former aide to Dick Cheney now working as a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right-leaning think tank known for its anti-Iran work. Hannah is listed as a member of the advisory council of Wikistrat, one of Zamel’s companies, on the firm’s website. (Other members of that board, including former CIA chief Michael Hayden, say their involvement with Wikistrat is informal and at arms length.)
Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Daily Beast that Wikistrat doesn’t bill itself as a typical consulting firm.
“Wikistrat presents themselves as a kind of private intelligence service,” Ibish said. “If you look at the work they’ve done in Yemen, they’ve been a work for hire. It’s sort of like an intelligence-for-hire kind of thing.”
“If you have a very rudimentary conversation discussing the possibility of raising the question of regime change, then it’s not surprising to bring in a set of stakeholders including Wikistrat,” he added.
Details of the January 2017 meeting reviewed by The Daily Beast show how Zamel—already a familiar face in Trumpworld for his audacious plan to use social media influence campaigns to help beat Hillary Clinton—had ambitions beyond Trump’s election. According to communications reviewed by The Daily Beast, Zamel flew to New York to help pitch the Iran idea to Assiri and Trump's team, delivering a bound presentation full of tactics to undercut the country’s government.
The Trump team offered a new way forward for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel, who had all grown frustrated by the Obama administration for its stance toward Iran and its brokering of the nuclear deal. Trump had campaigned, in part, on the promise that he would renegotiate the deal and take major steps against the Iranian regime during his first days in office. In his first public address after taking office, Flynn said the U.S. was “officially putting Iran on notice” after it carried out a missile test and attack on a Saudi warship by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Since then, the Trump administration has pulled out of the nuclear deal and levied snapback sanctions on the country.
The meetings in New York were part of a flurry of visits from influential foreigners to Trump Tower. Weeks before, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed reportedly discussed Iran policy at Trump Tower with Bannon, Flynn, and Jared Kushner. The meetings appear to be part of Saudi and Emirati efforts to lobby the incoming Trump administration against Qatar and Iran, their top regional competitors. The New York Times reported earlier this year that Nader worked with Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy to urge the White House to take an aggressive stance against the two countries. (Nader also helped orchestrate the meeting between Blackwater founder and Trump ally Erik Prince and Moscow moneyman Kirill Dmitriev.)
Mohammed bin Salman—known by his initials, MBS— leaned on General Assiri to help carry out conversations with Western officials about Iran and the Saudi-led war in Yemen, according to two senior officials in the intelligence community. Assiri was previously the spokesperson for Saudi’s military offensive in Yemen. That effort, in concert with the UAE and backed by the United States and European countries, has drawn enormous outcry from human rights activists and members of Congress. The UN has called it the globe’s worst humanitarian crisis, and UN air chief Mark Lowcock said earlier this week that the war puts 14 million Yemeni people at risk of starvation.
Sources familiar with the Saudi footprint in Washington described Assiri as one of MBS’ closest allies and most trusted confidants. Before joining the intelligence service, he was top officer in the Saudi air force—an elite service branch tasked with shooting down missiles that target the country. A former U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast Assiri was highly regarded in his air force days.
The killing of Khashoggi has thrown Assiri, and his Saudi leaders, under the spotlight. While several Washington-based lobbying firms have dropped the kingdom as a client, the Trump administration says it is still mulling its options for punishment. Earlier this week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the administration would ban travel visas for the individuals involved in the operation in Istanbul. But it is unclear if the White House will approve financial measures levied against Saudi Arabia. If it does, those actions would most likely fall after the midterm elections.
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng